April 9, 2014
REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
As the United States and Europe (and the Atlantic Council) grapple with the crisis over Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, danger signs rise like signal flares from the Middle East. The latest reminder at the Council is an essay by Aziz El-Kaissouni, a political analyst and former Reuters correspondent in Cairo.

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We know what happens when an authoritarian, army-backed government in Egypt uses violence and mass imprisonment to throttle both its radicalized and more moderate dissidents. Radicalized terrorism, first at home and then abroad,is what happened the last time. Al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri are what happened.

Only 38 months after Egypt’s pro-democracy revolution overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the new army-backed strongman, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, is bidding to follow Mubarak’s path in ruling as a nominally civilian, nominally elected, authoritarian president. El-Sisi oversaw the Egyptian government’s massacre of as many as 1,000 protesters camped at Cairo’s Rabaa Square in August – an act of political violence that, we should join Kaissouni in noting, was the deadliest “in Egypt’s modern history.” 

“It has become fairly clear that, for much of the international community, principle and human rights in Egypt have taken a backseat to more basic and time-tested notions of realpolitik,” Kaissouni writes on the Council’s EgyptSource blog. Western governments’ criticism of El-Sisi’s abuses “when voiced, is more often than not understated, discreet, or tempered by subsequent declarations of support,” Kaissouni says. “Most countries seem to be naively hoping for a restoration of stability, hopefully with the bare minimum of public human rights abuses.”

If we in the West are indeed resigned to the return of Egyptian military authoritarianism, complete with mass human rights abuses, we also must resign ourselves to a re-birth of al-Qaeda-style terrorism, once again directed at the United States and Europe. For the moment, the evidence in Egypt is that “militant groups are completely invested in waging their war on the military-backed government,” Kaissouni writes. But we saw during Mubarak’s rule (and have seen as well in Algeria, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere) that radicalized people often eventually re-focus on a more distant “enemy” – governments in the West seen as supportive of repression in Cairo or Assiut.

Kaissouni’s warning is not alone. Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Amy Hawthorne has assembled in detail the Obama administration’s dispiriting record in speaking clearly against the el-Sisi regime’s killings, political imprisonments and other human rights crimes. The administration appears uncomfortable with these abuses, but “does not yet see the country as an urgent problem” requiring that Washington get out front to oppose this violent authoritarianism. Her documentation sadly buttresses Kaissouni’s argument.

Hawthorne and the Council’s Danya Greenfield note that the Ukraine crisis has distracted US and European leaders from giving desperately needed attention to the broader struggle to build Arab democracies in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. The Arab transitions should have had a place on the agenda of last month’s US-European Union summit – but as in other fora, it was left aside.

“It’s been said that the jails of Arab dictatorships are the birthing ground of militant Islamism,” Kaissouni writes. “A mere thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks, that grim truism seems to have been largely forgotten or ignored by Western governments still fumbling on how to react to Egypt’s descent into a new and particularly violent authoritarianism.”

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