Editor’s Note: Timothy E. Kaldas is an analyst and writer based in Cairo. He is a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and professor of politics at Nile University. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to the White House has caused a flurry of criticism, primarily concerning the warm welcome he received from President Donald Trump.
However, as Glenn Greenwald notes in The Intercept, the United States has been cozying up to violent, authoritarian leaders since long before Trump took office.
It’s no secret that US foreign policy has always prioritized the security and material interests of the United States over any concern – real or imagined – for democracy or human rights abroad.
There remain, however, some real differences in the way the previous administration and Trump’s engage with the Egyptian government’s violence and human rights abuses.
Critics of the United States who claim Trump is in fact no different from Barack Obama in his support for Sisi and other strongmen in the region are missing important nuances in the policies of the two men as well as how they were perceived by the leaders with whom they interacted.
In October 2013, following the military coup against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and a months-long brutal crackdown on his supporters, the Obama administration took the unprecedented move of suspending a significant amount of military aid to Egypt.
Critics of the move were right to point out that the suspension of aid was only partial. They also noted that while the resumption of aid was officially predicated on Egypt making meaningful moves to re-establish democracy, then-Secretary of State John Kerry soon flew to Egypt to minimize the significance of the suspension, explaining it was not “punishment” for the crackdown.
In the end, the aid resumed in 2015 over security concerns without any meaningful moves toward more democratic governance in Egypt – the official condition for resuming aid.
What remains worth noting, however, is that even if they don’t superficially have the desired effect, these perceived slights did irk the Egyptian regime.
Since the coup, the relationship between Washington and Cairo has remained tense, with Egyptian government officials claiming United States was seeking to undermine the Egyptian state and refusing to consider or implement advice from US officials.
Cairo also sought to signal to Washington its displeasure by pursuing stronger ties with competing countries such as Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited for a lavish state visit to Cairo in 2015 during which the streets were lined with his image and the flagship state-owned newspaper ran an image of the Russian leader topless carrying a rifle while calling him “a hero of this age.”
If the condemnations from the Obama administration were truly seen as meaningless or irrelevant by Sisi, then Egypt would not have done this.
The reality is that leaders such as Sisi want to be able to engage in their human rights violations without criticism and while being considered respectable company in diplomatic settings rather than necessary brutes with which one must do business. They claim – and likely often believe – that their Western counterparts, who fail to appreciate the necessity of their actions, misunderstand them.
This feeling is exacerbated when they see Western governments prepared to suspend the rules of human rights when their own security is compromised, whether it is through black sites and torture under George W. Bush, the ongoing existence of Guantanamo Bay or the expansion of Obama’s drone campaign.
Ironically, many in the Middle East would have more sympathy with a US foreign policy that was unapologetically self-interested, rather than one built on self-interest but proceeds to lecture others about human rights.
Many here see Trump’s “America First” promise as the first honest articulation of US foreign policy in years. While Western allies are aghast at such raw selfishness in foreign affairs, Arab audiences have long been cynical, and perhaps rightfully so, in their assessment of the motivations of US foreign policy.
So ultimately, this White House will continue to prioritize America’s material interests over any concern for human rights or democracy in the Middle East.
While in principle this may not be a deviation from longstanding US policy, the way in which Trump does so – without even a modicum of concern for the respect for human rights and the dignity of citizens in the region – will further embolden authoritarians.
To what extent they would consider whether a crackdown or political arrest was worth the headache in the past, they are no longer burdened with such considerations.
While the United States was fairly criticized for rarely putting teeth behind its words of criticism, it is likely we will come to miss the existence of those faint whispers of humanity, even when they were often overwhelmed by the brutal cynicism of realpolitik.