Having embraced Egypt’s new autocrats, United States Secretary of State John Kerry ought at least to stop acting surprised when they behave like autocrats.
Kerry paid a fawning visit to Egypt’s military strongman on Sunday, labelling President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi’s farcical election "historic" and promising a full restoration of U.S. aid. (The Apache helicopters are coming "very, very soon," he assured his hosts.) Kerry’s jet had barely cleared Egyptian airspace when the regime humiliated him and the United States by sentencing three journalists to long prison sentences. Kerry issued an indignant protest, as if the sentences were in any way out of character for the regime he had just congratulated.
El-Sissi, until recently the general in charge of Egypt’s armed forces, came to power in a coup last year, overthrowing an elected government led by Mohammed Morsi. Since then, the regime has killed more than 2,000 of its own citizens and ordered death sentences for hundreds more, at times in mass trials that make a mockery of the judicial system. It has silenced media and raided civil society, charging both Egyptians and Americans. Tens of thousands of political dissidents are imprisoned. One of them, Ahmed Maher, now staging a hunger strike, is reportedly facing charges of treason for writing a commentary in The Washington Post criticizing Kerry’s whitewashing of the regime’s record.
The secretary’s response has been to express confidence repeatedly, against all obvious evidence, that the regime is moving in a democratic direction. When asked about the death sentences of more than 100 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Kerry replied, "I think it’s more appropriate for President el-Sissi to speak to those at such time as he deems fit … But I will say to you that he gave me a very strong sense of his commitment" to human rights.
The next day the three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced for allegedly aiding terrorists: Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, a dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, Peter Greste, an Australian, to seven years and Egyptian Baher Mohamed to 10 years because he was found in possession of a single bullet casing he had kept in his home as a souvenir.
Three years ago, as the Arab Spring began, U.S. President Barack Obama was emphatic. "What we will oppose," he said then, "is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent." That commitment has given way to a calculation that stability matters more than the "dignity" Obama used to champion.
We think the promise of stability is a mirage. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled badly, but it won elections; driving the movement underground is likely to provoke violence. Squelching the media, oppressing any remaining liberal opposition and returning to a military-dominated economy won’t spur the innovation or growth that Egypt needs.
Maybe we’re wrong and Obama is right to return to the old model of cozying up to Arab dictators. But, then, don’t insult everyone — Egypt’s courageous political prisoners most of all — by pretending that human rights are a priority.