Nine months after Egypt’s armed forces overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, the leader of that coup has announced that he will seek the presidency in elections next month. But even if army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi receives an overwhelming mandate from voters, he won’t be able to restore prosperity and stability to the country if the government continues to repress and imprison political opponents. The United States should use its limited but real influence with Egypt to press Sisi to abandon his siege mentality and open a dialogue with opposition groups.
Superficially, Sisi’s resignation as defense minister and announcement that he will run for president seem like a case of “Back to the Future” for Egypt. Before Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012, Egypt had been governed by a series of presidents with roots in the armed services. But Sisi may be deluding himself if he believes he can rule as imperiously as his predecessors did, denouncing political opponents as terrorists and cracking down on dissent. No doubt many Egyptians were disillusioned by Morsi’s incompetence and high-handedness, but the Arab Spring released a desire for political reform that can’t be permanently stifled.
Yet instead of engaging the opposition and embracing political pluralism, the Egyptian government has pursued a scorched-earth policy. The Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization, Morsi has been charged with criminal offenses, and the government has moved against activists, bloggers, filmmakers and journalists. Last month, 529 defendants were simultaneously sentenced to death in connection with the death of a police officer. In what might be the understatement of the year, a State Department spokesperson said it “defies logic” that a two-day trial involving so many defendants could satisfy international standards of due process.
On Thursday Egypt’s interim government approved harsher penalties for “terrorism-related” crimes, ostensibly in response to violent attacks on army and police forces. But such measures won’t make Egypt more secure in the long run if the government relentlessly punishes and isolates its critics. And if the country isn’t secure, its economy (including the tourist business) will suffer.
The Obama administration repeatedly has urged the Egyptian government to seek political dialogue and has tried to exert leverage by withholding some economic and military assistance. But administration officials have indicated that they want to resume the delivery to Egypt of some military equipment, including Apache helicopters that would be used in anti-terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula, an increasingly lawless area adjacent to Israel. Before the current restrictions on aid are lifted, the U.S. should insist that the Egyptian government change its repressive ways.