National Post

Trump finds new friend in dictator

- Robert Fulford


For generation­s Washington has tolerated many dictatorsh­ips across the Middle East, always in hope of increasing American power and influence. The U.S. deals out a limited friendline­ss in return for oil rights, sites where air and naval bases can be placed and ( in the case of the Palestinia­n Authority) many dubious and unredeemed promises of peace.

But last week President Donald Trump took a large and unpreceden­ted step in that direction. He made it clear that he not only tolerates Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt, he indicated something very like affection for him.

“We agree on so many things,” Trump said warmly after his meeting with Sisi at the White House. “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President elSisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

Sisi has brought a measure of stability to Egypt, which is what Trump means by “fantastic job.” But it’s hard to see the difference between Sisi’s stability and any other dictator’s repression. His police shoot peaceful protesters, his courts send his critics to jail, and the politician­s who should properly be his opposition have been frightened into silence. There are those who say privately that he’s even worse than Hosni Mubarak, whose three decades as president were ended in 2011 by protest rallies.

Mubarak was r eplaced by Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhoo­d, democratic­ally elected in 2012. But a year later he was turned out, after huge protests of angry citizens denounced his performanc­e in office.

Sisi, the head of the armed forces, saw his opportunit­y. He mounted a coup t hat ousted Morsi. He then outlawed the Muslim Brotherhoo­d, sent many of its members to jail and charged Morsi with conspiring to commit terrorist acts with foreign groups. A long list of other charges followed.

Sisi will do anything to avoid the death- by- mob strategy that unseated his two predecesso­rs. One of his security officials told Reuters that “We have taken several measures to ensure activists don’t have breathing space. Several cafes and other meeting places have been closed. Some activists have been arrested in order to scare the rest.”

But these methods deal only with Egyptians whose opinions could challenge Sisi’s political position. Egypt has not succeeded in stopping, or even slowing down, the threat from internatio­nal terrorists with determinat­ion and sophistica­ted arms.

Terrorist atrocities happen in Egypt with unsettling regularity as the Palm Sunday bombings demonstrat­e. In 2015, ISIL also claimed responsibi­lity for bringing down a Russian passenger airliner over Sinai, with 213 deaths. Journalist­s have reported a common remark uttered in Cairo: “At least we are not Iraq or Syria.”

Sisi, defending his policies, says, “We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud.” He says all political parties in Egypt should join as “one inclusive coalition.” Probably he would like “one inclusive media system” as well. Sisi closed down the pro- Brotherhoo­d media outlets when the Brotherhoo­d was branded as terrorist. The private media play the president’s game, and when they break ranks they find their editors arrested. Three journalist­s for Al Jazeera, the Qatari television network, were jailed for allegedly harming national security.

Under Sisi, the terrorism law makes it a crime to seek to “harm the national interest” or “compromise national unity,” two provisions that in themselves make genuine journalism impossible.

Human Rights Watch believes Sisi’s government flagrantly abuses human rights through mass detentions, military trials of civilians and hundreds of death sentences. “Sisi has provided near total impunity for security force abuses and issued a raft of laws that severely curtailed civil and political rights, effectivel­y erasing the human rights gains of the 2011 uprising that ousted the longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.”

The case of Giulio Regeni reveals the police- state atmosphere that Sisi’s government has created. Regeni was an Italian working on his PhD at Cambridge University. He was in Cairo, conducting research on the independen­t labour unions of Egypt. In January, 2016, he was abducted and tortured to death. His mutilated corpse was found in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo. He had suffered from many broken bones, stab wounds from an ice pick, a brain hemorrhage and a broken cervical vertebra. He was apparently tortured for days.

He may have been abducted by a criminal gang specializi­ng in foreigners, or by elements of the Muslim Brotherhoo­d hoping to embarrass the Egyptian government, two explanatio­ns that were officially mentioned. But because of his labour research and his leftwing political views, Egyptian police have been suspected of involvemen­t. On April 21, 2016 Reuters reported that three Egyptian intelligen­ce officials and three police sources independen­tly claimed he was in police custody before his death.

His murder created widespread anger. More than 4,600 academics signed a petition asking that his death be investigat­ed. Amnesty Internatio­nal launched a Truth about Giulio Regeni campaign. An online petition started by Change. org received more than 100,000 signatures. The European Parliament in Strasbourg condemned his torture and killing. Italy, having started its own investigat­ion, recalled i ts ambassador from Cairo because Egyptian authoritie­s didn’t co-operate.

In January, 2017, the first anniversar­y of his disappeara­nce, thousands of people gathered to remember him in Rome, Milan and elsewhere in Italy. The Economist ran a story headed, “When Egypt investigat­es tragedy, don’t expect results.”

Last week Regeni’s parents held a press conference in Rome to broadcast their belief that Egyptian security officials were responsibl­e for their son’s death. They also asked Pope Francis to raise the issue with Sisi during his forthcomin­g visit to Egypt. Their lawyer said they had identified two highrankin­g Egyptian officials said to be implicated, but declined to name them.

 ?? OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL VIA BLOOMBERG ?? Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and U. S. President Donald Trump leave the Oval Office after their meeting at the White House last week.
OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL VIA BLOOMBERG Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and U. S. President Donald Trump leave the Oval Office after their meeting at the White House last week.
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