The High Price of Speaking Out in Egypt Under Sisi, Washington’s Favorite Dictator

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden criticized Donald Trump’s support for the Egyptian ruler Sisi, his “favorite dictator.” But Biden has now approved fresh arms sales to Egypt, turning a blind eye to ongoing repression. This bipartisan betrayal of democracy has to end.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the presidential palace in Cairo during a ceremony to sign military contracts, 2015. (Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump famously referred to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as “my favorite dictator” during a press conference at the 2019 G7 Summit. Trump went on to shower effusive praise on his Egyptian counterpart:

We understood each other very well. He’s a very tough man, I will tell you that … and he’s done a fantastic job in Egypt.

Indeed, Sisi has worked very hard to live up to the reputation of being “a very tough man” who his leading American fan delighted in rewarding.

A former general and chief of military intelligence, Sisi led a military coup against Egypt’s nascent democracy in 2013, less than three years after the uprisings of 2011. Ever since, the people of Egypt have been living in the military’s cross hairs.

Police State, Client State

Sisi unleashed a brutal police state, far more repressive than the government of his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. As a report by the Congressional Research Service points out:

While successive Egyptian presidents since 1952 were effective at centralizing power, both within the ruling system and outside it, certain institutions (judiciary, military) … enjoyed a degree of independence from the executive. However, under President Sisi, there has been an unprecedented attempt to consolidate control over all branches of government.

In April 2019, the report notes, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament approved amendments granting the Egyptian president “authority to appoint all chief justices of Egyptian judicial bodies and the public prosecutor.”

On Sisi’s watch, Egypt’s multiple security agencies have indiscriminately jailed all critics from across the political spectrum, from leftists to Islamists. They have acted openly with no restraint, and brazenly cranked up the repression so that not even the faintest whispers of opposition to Sisi’s policies are tolerated.

This has all happened with unflinching American support. For decades now, the two top recipients of the US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program have been Israel ($3.1 billion) and Egypt ($1.3 billion). Together they account for about 75 percent of the FMF’s yearly total.

European leaders have been no less complicit in empowering Sisi’s despotic regime. Some have promoted him as a paragon of wise leadership and turned a blind eye to his abuses. Last December, French president Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for Sisi in an elaborate state visit. Macron even gave Sisi the French state’s highest award, the Grand Croix de la Legion d’Honneur, in a sumptuous ceremony at the country’s presidential palace — a contemptible moment no less shameful than Trump’s praise for “my favorite dictator.”

Macron’s claim that under his presidency, “France will always make sure to be on the side of … human rights” is clearly just empty rhetoric when it comes to sales of military hardware. France has been the second largest supplier of weapons to Egypt ($1.1 billion) after the United States. Egypt was among the three top clients of the French arms industry.

The Scorpion Tower

Statistics from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and other advocacy groups tell a grim, terrifying story about those who fall prey to Egypt’s security apparatus. HRW estimates that the Sisi regime has detained as many as sixty thousand political prisoners. Within the huge prison complex known as Tora at the southern edge of Cairo, there is a special section reserved for political prisoners, the so-called Scorpion Tower (burj al-aqrab). According to one of its former wardens, it was designed “so that those who go in don’t come out again unless dead.”

The authorities detain Egyptian citizens and sentence them to jail on the most frivolous if not sham charges. Egypt’s top anti-graft official was fired because he exposed a vast network of government corruption involving army leaders. When he persisted, he was sentenced to five years in prison for “insulting the military.”

A female member of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms was placed under house arrest because she posted a video on her Facebook page speaking about the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt. When she persisted and later criticized the government for failing to tackle sexual violence, she received a two-year prison sentence.

Egypt’s rulers have routinely used media laws to crack down on journalists who dare to deviate from the official narrative; if they do not fall into line, they are summarily thrown in jail. To muzzle exiled dissidents, authorities have harassed relatives left behind in Egypt, forced parents to denounce their children on television, and detained fathers and brothers on bogus terrorism charges.

Biden’s Doublespeak

This list of abuses goes on and on, creating a state of unbridled, paranoiac terror that treats the flimsiest kind of dissent as an existential threat. Sisi’s ruthless repression is epitomized by the torment that our professional colleague Laila Soueif and her family have had to endure for too many years.

Laila Soueif is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University. She and her family know all too well the realities of political repression in Egypt. In the 1980s, when their daughter Mona was born, her husband Ahmed Seif El-Islam was in prison for his left-wing political activity, having become known as an eminent lawyer and defender of human rights.

In November 2013, following Sisi’s military coup, Soueif saw her son Alaa, who had been the icon of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, arrested once more. A few months later, in June 2014, it was her daughter Sanaa’s turn, arrested at a demonstration calling for the release of political prisoners, including her brother Alaa. Laila and her three children, two of whom were now in prison, undertook a hunger strike which lasted for more than two months, protesting the imprisonment of Alaa and Sanaa.

In September 2019, Alaa, soon after his release from prison, was arrested once more. Laila again worked for his release, in tandem with teaching at the university. After organizing a small demonstration calling for prisoners to be freed during the coronavirus epidemic, she was arrested in turn, but let go the next day.

With prison visits suspended and communication between families cut off, Laila Soueif began a sit-in in front of the prison demanding that she be allowed to receive a letter from her son Alaa. She was physically attacked there, along with her daughters who had gone to join her. When they went to the authorities to report the attack, Laila saw her daughter Sanaa taken away by out-of-uniform police, and held in prison.

US defense secretary James Mattis and Egypt’s Central Military Zone commander General Ayman Abdel Hamid Amer depart after Mattis placed a wreath at the Unknown Soldier Memorial April 20, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt. Jonathan Ernst – Pool / Getty

During the US presidential campaign, Joe Biden posted a tweet declaring that there should be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’” But on February 16, shortly after his inauguration, President Biden approved the sale of missiles worth $197 million to Sisi’s military, claiming that the arms deal would “improve the security of a major non-NATO ally.” So much for “no more blank checks”! It was just an ephemeral promise to make the candidate look good on the campaign trail.

President Biden’s decision to approve the weapons sale came just a few days after Egyptian security forces raided the homes of another US-based Egyptian human rights activist. Instead of cynical doublespeak, it’s time for Washington to give real support to those brave activists, and to denounce the heavy repression they continue to face for resisting Sisi’s despotic rule.