In Trump’s view, Egypt is “an important strategic partner,” “an anchor of stability in the Middle East,” and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is “a great president.” With these words, accompanied by smiles, handshakes and photo-ops, Donald Trump welcomed the Egyptian general in Washington on Tuesday for a three-day visit, during which the two discussed economic and military cooperation and the fight against terrorism.
A closer look reveals that there are internal factors in Egypt that have pushed el-Sisi to seek a show of support by his American ally. His constitutional reform will be submitted to a popular referendum in the next few weeks, and the Egyptian president, even though he has worked to annihilate any form of opposition, is now finding it hard to silence all dissent. “I think he’s doing a great job,” was Trump’s answer to journalists who asked him for a comment on the constitutional reform.
The proposed amendments would extend the president’s power over the judiciary, give the military more authority in the country’s politics, and allow el-Sisi to remain in office until 2034. An undercurrent of disapproval is making itself felt even in the Egyptian parliament, an impregnable fortress of support for the president, and among a judiciary that is already largely corrupt and loyal to the regime’s anti-freedom line.
These days, Amnesty has denounced a serious escalation in arrests, smear campaigns and cyberattacks in Egypt against anyone who dares to criticize the proposed constitutional reform. Michelle Dunne, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that el-Sisi intends to exploit Trump’s endorsement “to entrench his grip on power … Showing he has Trump’s enthusiastic support will help Sisi force any potential critics in the army or elsewhere to follow suit.”
But this time, the free voices of Egyptian civil society have managed to make themselves heard loud and clear in Washington. While Trump was giving el-Sisi a warm welcome at the White House, 12 organizations for human rights, together with six members of Congress, held a public event at the Capitol where they denounced el-Sisi’s iron-fist rule and the human rights violations in Egypt.
A public letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signed by 17 senators from both parties, expressed “serious concerns” about the constitutional reforms el-Sisi is trying to enact and “the erosion of human and political rights” in Egypt.
A decisive role in these protests has been played by the long-term advocacy work of the Egyptian diaspora (present in the US in large numbers), which has begun to coalesce into new organizations and coalitions of activists, academics and human rights defenders. This is an important milestone that bears witness to a new way of conducting an effective opposition, while maintaining close ties with those who take part in the struggle within the country’s borders.