Back in 2009, when I was hosting a TV discussion show in Cairo, I was shocked at how brazenly the security services would interfere in our work, attempting to enforce a pro-government, pro-military editorial line through threats and ominous phone calls to my producers. Censorship kept some of our shows off air, and our government minders manipulated the editing process. After the first season, we were forced to shut down.
Behind Egypt’s authoritarian curtain, however, the Cairo intelligentsia was abuzz about President Barack Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University in June of that year. It was not only Obama’s words that interested Egyptians, it was his example: A man who shared their skin tone and whose father was raised Muslim had been elected president of the most powerful country in the world, while they were still denied basic rights in their own country. As Hosni Mubarak, who presided over a tiny oligarchic elite utterly disconnected from average Egyptians, prepared to hand over power to his son, Gamal, a dramatic democratic uprising was building.
Five years later, the American president who once promised an Egyptian audience that he would actively defend their right to have “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” has thrown his support behind a regime that is far more tyrannical than Mubarak’s. Under the iron fist of Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military “deep state” that controls a full third of Egypt’s economy and dominates the halls of power is expanding its influence while the country’s oligarchs amass record wealth. The only democratically elected leader in Egypt’s 5,000-year history, Mohamed Morsi, was recently sentenced to death in a kangaroo court, while 40,000 political prisoners languish behind bars, facing torture and sexual abuse. All political alternatives to the current regime have been crushed through force and intimidation, while opposition leaders reside in exile. Egypt today is ruled by the same military-based regime in alliance with the same business interests as during the Mubarak era, except with less restraint than the late dictator showed when it comes to brutalizing nonviolent opponents.
At every stage of Sisi’s bid to reassert military rule, Washington has provided the necessary diplomatic and material support, ensuring Cairo’s regression to the capital of Arab repression. Just days before Egyptian security forces massacred 1,000 nonviolent protesters in the Cairo suburb of Rabaa in August 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Sisi was “restoring democracy.” In October 2014, at a conference in Cairo dedicated to raising funds to rebuild the areas of the Gaza Strip decimated by Israeli attacks that summer (a process that has yet to begin), Kerry lent Sisi further legitimacy, hailing the dictator for “the pivotal role that Egypt has played in this region for so long.” As Sisi’s courts intensified the regime’s repressive rule, overseeing the aforementioned jailing of 40,000 Egyptians and hundreds of arbitrary death sentences, Bill and Hillary Clinton met Sisi for a photo-op. And just this April, when Obama lifted an executive order barring weapons sales to Egypt, White House National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan noted, “The Administration will not make the so-called ‘democracy certification’ in that legislation.”