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Dictators are exploiting relationship with Trump administration

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 23, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) (SAUL LOEB/Getty)

Ruthless dictators are exploiting their relationships with the Trump administration to brutalize brave secular democrats. The most recent example is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sending soldiers to slaughter Syrian Kurds, whom we abandoned after they fought at our side against the Islamic State. But there are others.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a year after murdering exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, continues to hold and brutally torture Loujain Al-Hathloul and several other women who campaigned for the right to drive. The Saudis continue murderous bombing of civilian areas of Yemen trying to restore power to the regime they originally helped install to quell the Arab Spring protests.

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Perhaps most significant, however, is an unprecedented new wave of repression in the Arab world’s most populous and politically important country: Egypt. The country was no stranger to harsh repression under former dictator Hosni Mubarak, but now its leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is taking it to an entirely new level. One friend says that virtually everyone she knows has been arrested except those who were out of the country when the crackdown began.

During prior campaigns to suppress dissent, Egyptian regimes maintained the appearance of legality. Since a recent round of anti-government demonstrations, however, it has been rounding up journalists and civil society activists en masse, generally with no pretense of charges.

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In the past, the best-known activists enjoyed some measure of protection, if not from arrest then at least from the security forces’ endemic reliance on torture. On Oct. 13th, however, the secret police pulled journalist Esraa Abdel-Fattah from her car at night. When she appeared in security court several days later, she reported being badly beaten and tortured. Abdel Fattah was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding the April 6 youth movement that helped launch the Arab Spring demonstrations that brought down long-time dictator Mubarak.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Erdogan says joint patrols with Russia will begin Friday in northeastern Syria, following a Russian-brokered cease-fire that promised to have Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw to the south.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. Erdogan says joint patrols with Russia will begin Friday in northeastern Syria, following a Russian-brokered cease-fire that promised to have Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw to the south.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici) (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

The regime has worked assiduously to discredit her but, with one exception, limited direct violence against her for fear of U.S. reaction. Now, however, General al-Sisi has interpreted President Trump’s profuse praise as a green-light to crush democratic activists once and for all. The regime has arrested relatives of exiled dissidents, apparently for leverage.

This matches a steady escalation in other aspects of General al-Sisi’s rule. During his first election, he was content merely to disqualify all candidates with the potential for uniting the opposition against him. In his most recent election, however, General al-Sisi arrested anyone who showed signs of interest in running against him, including a former army chief of staff. The only other candidate allowed on the ballot was a clownish figure who admitted to being an al-Sisi supporter running to give the appearance of legitimacy.

Apologists for authoritarianism argue that strongmen are necessary to implement difficult but necessary decisions, such as making peace with long-time adversaries or reforming the economy. Yet for all his brutality, General al-Sisi is remarkably weak. Massive corruption and mismanagement have wrecked the Egyptian economy. Young people, even those with good educations, increasingly despair that they will never have stable careers with a future. This makes Egypt a political tinderbox.

The non-violent democracy activists that General al-Sisi has arrested offer a constructive outlet for that anger. If it achieved democratic change, Egypt would immediately become a beacon of hope throughout the region. With positive, pro-Western voices silenced, however, Egypt’s desperate youth may become radicalized.

General al-Sisi is keeping Egypt afloat with massive infusions of Saudi cash. In exchange, he must do the Saudis’ bidding. Two years ago, the Saudis demanded that he hand over two Red Sea islands, and he meekly complied, outraging Egyptians of all persuasions.

The more repressive General al-Sisi becomes, the more heavily he depends on the military to keep him in power. This ensures that he will not attack the corruption holding the economy back because its source is the military and companies owned by the generals.

This country’s massive annual aid packages subsidize General al-Sisi’s repression. In 2017 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suspended some U.S. aid for human rights abuses. Unfortunately, the suspension proved short-lived and General al-Sisi’s reforms cosmetic. With a vastly more severe campaign of repression underway, the administration has offered no hint of any new suspension.

Accordingly, Congress should act on its own when crafting full-year appropriations bills next month. It should include an absolute prohibition on assisting the Saudis war in Yemen. It also should suspend aid to Egypt until that country releases Esraa Abdel-Fattah and its tens of thousands of other political prisoners.

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David A. Super (das62@law.georgetown.edu) is a law professor at Georgetown University.

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