Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi celebrated his recent return from the U.S. by imprisoning prominent opposition blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah for participating in a peaceful demonstration. Historically, Washington's renewed pledges of massive military aid have triggered major crackdowns on dissent in Egypt. If this crackdown continues, both Egypt and America will lose. Continued repression of secular democrats will exacerbate instability and corruption, which in turn deprive any regime of the legitimacy required to win popular acceptance of peace and to take resolute action against extremism.
All too often, Middle Eastern politics are painted as a simple dichotomy between autocrats and Islamists. Given the choice between the two, Americans predictably choose the autocrats. Knowing this, the autocrats play up the Islamist threat and brutally suppress secular democrats who could offer a third choice.
Precisely because they believe in open public discourse, secular democrats are easy to find and arrest. Egyptian pro-democracy activists also have strenuously advocated non-violence, making them safe targets for repression. Islamists are harder to repress because they blend in at mosques. Autocrats also recognize that ongoing Islamist threats ensure continued American support (and divert attention from human rights abuses).
The Arab Spring offered a historic opportunity to break out of the dismal autocrats-or-Islamists framework. Secular democrats, many with U.S.-based training in non-violent organizing, took to the streets to demand change from regimes whose corruption stifled their economies as surely as their secret police stifled dissent. Islamists, for the most part, stayed timidly on the sidelines. Had we stood by our natural democratic allies, the region would have been transformed.
Instead, we dithered. First we supported the corrupt Mubarak regime against the broad popular revolution, then we backed a military junta that arrested pro-democracy protesters, then we sought favor with the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi — who won election only when the junta excluded secular democrats — and now, after brief, half-hearted objections, we embrace General el-Sissi, who has already shown himself to be even more repressive than Mr. Mubarak was.
Our embrace of General el-Sissi is spectacularly short-sighted. The U.S. needs partners for peace, support against Islamist extremists, stability, and an end to the rampant corruption that is smothering the economies in the region. None of these can come from either autocrats or Islamists, neither of whom command broad majority support needed to make hard choices to bring peace and progress.
Even after General el-Sissi jailed most viable secular and Islamist opponents and intimidated the press, so many Egyptians boycotted his election that he had to extend voting and coerce voters to the polls.
He recently signaled plans to crack down further. Under a new law, any Egyptians receiving funds from overseas face life imprisonment, and in some circumstances death, if they engage in advocacy deemed harmful to the national interest or unity. Since last year's coup, countless peaceful protesters have been jailed on charges that dissent is against the national interest and unity.
Overseas funding can be essential to keeping independent voices viable in a country like Egypt, where the military controls up to a third of the national economy and it has unchecked power to intimidate and bankrupt potential domestic funders of dissent. Vladimir Putin has choked off resources from his opposition in just this way. The U.S. government has recognized the difference that even small infusions of resources can make to civil society groups in closed societies: we fund several entities that promote democracy and non-violent public engagement around the world. General el-Sissi's regime has banned Egyptian groups receiving U.S. aid and jailed their members. Under this new law, democracy and human rights activists could be risking their lives. More broadly, this law could silence Egyptians overseas, fearing that support sent back to family members could be mischaracterized and put them at risk of imprisonment or worse.
The U.S. will never persuade General el-Sissi to embrace democracy or end the endemic corruption that enriches Egyptian generals. But we can use the leverage our huge aid payments provide to protect some space for independent voices. President Obama should press his recent demand for the release of Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement that triggered the 2011 revolution, and expand it to include Mr. Maher's colleagues, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma, and to journalists jailed for questioning the regime. We should press for the roll-back of the grotesquely overbroad foreign funding law. More broadly, we should make clear, to General el-Sissi and to all Egyptians, that we stand behind those seeking free and open discourse.