Obama’s mixed messages on Egypt


The Obama administration’s partial suspension of aid to Egypt reflects an attempt to balance what President Barack Obama calls “core interests,” such as the security of Israel and counterterrorism, with U.S. support for liberal values. The idea is that the United States can punish the military-backed regime for not advancing a democratic agenda by withholding a few helicopters and tanks while preserving its cooperation on security matters by supplying it with spare parts.

The mixed message appears unlikely to reverse the course of Gen. Abdel Fatah Sissi, who controls the interim government and who is cultivating a role for himself as a nationalist, populist strongman. It also looks like a poor bet for defending the interests that Obama, in his recent address to the United Nations, placed above the defense of democracy and human rights.

In fact, Sunday’s renewed bloodshed in Cairo, in which at least 50 opposition protesters were gunned down by security forces, adds to the growing evidence that the Sissi regime is failing to establish its authority. That failure stems directly from its attempt to establish an autocracy more repressive than any seen in Egypt in decades.

Spurning appeals by the United States and the European Union to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sissi regime is attempting to destroy the Islamist movement by force. Hundreds of its leaders have been imprisoned without charge, and state authorities are moving to ban the organization and seize its assets. Attempts by the Brotherhood’s supporters to mount protest marches, such as Sunday’s in Cairo, have been met by volleys of gunfire.

The regime’s tactics are contemptible on human rights grounds, but they are also disastrously counterproductive. Previous attempts to stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood, dating to the 1950s, have succeeded only in driving the movement underground and, ultimately, making it stronger. This repression may be even more dangerous, as it has provoked violent counterattacks by Islamist militants, many aimed at the Suez Canal area. Car and suicide bombings are appearing in Egypt for the first time.

Obama administration officials tout the regime’s rush to write a new constitution as evidence that it is moving toward democracy. But the charter, written by an assembly hand-picked by the military, would grant the armed forces self-governance and restore an election system previously used to create rubber-stamp parliaments. A state of emergency remains in effect, and all media echo official propaganda — including campaigns against U.S. and European pro-democracy organizations.

On the economic front, the Sissi government is flouting Western advice and common sense by embracing populist measures, such as a huge increase in the minimum wage and a law that would mandate price cuts for food. These measures, temporarily enabled by handouts from Persian Gulf states, will exacerbate an economic crisis caused by the collapse of tourism and foreign investment.

The United States seeks the stabilization of Egypt under “an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy,” the State Department said Wednesday in announcing the new aid policy. The problem is that its mixed approach leaves it still betting on a regime that is delivering none of those goods.