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Opinion | Rethinking Trump’s Favorite Dictator


I used to think so. Democracy turned out to be an invitation to Islamism. Egyptian liberalism, sometimes inflected with anti-Semitism, has never drawn majority political support. El-Sisi has been determined to preserve his ties with the U.S. and Israel and fight terrorists militarily and ideologically.

As for the other major alternatives offered by Arab political leaders, they boil down to secular dictatorships on the Algerian model, military dictatorships on the Sudanese one, familial dictatorships on the Saudi one or Islamist dictatorships on the Gazan one. Tunisia, sometimes touted as the Arab Spring’s success story, sits on a political knife’s edge.

Is Egypt really so bad by comparison?

It may turn out to be worse. El-Sisi squandered the historic opportunity to set the example of leaving office voluntarily, as Nelson Mandela did, even if he did so in the context of a managed transition to a trusted lieutenant in his own party (akin to Mexico under the old ruling P.R.I. party or South Africa under the A.N.C.). El-Sisi lost his chance to at least diminish the overwhelming role the military plays in the Egyptian economy, opening it to new players and defusing a major source of popular resentment. And he needlessly burned bridges with liberals, Egyptian and Western, by treating them as political enemies nearly on a par with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The upshot is that he’s made any kind of gradual but effective political, economic and ideological reform all but impossible. He wants to present Egyptians with a binary choice: him, or the deluge. Eventually, but inevitably, the deluge wins.

Favorite dictator or not, el-Sisi is not going to be a good long-term bet for the United States — and, like the late shah of Iran, could wind up being a disastrous one. That’s not an argument for this administration, or the next, to cut him off. It is an argument for saying there ought to be a price for American support, paid in the coin of gradual political and economic reform.

El-Sisi, of all people, should know this. “We are not gods on earth,” he told me when we met a few years ago in Cairo. His interest in self-preservation, to say nothing of the good of Egypt, should prompt him to stop acting as one.

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