Last April, an Egyptian court acquitted Aya Hijazi and seven others of charges related to their work with a charitable foundation for Cairo’s street children. After nearly three years in prison, Hijazi, a dual US-Egyptian citizen, was released and allowed to return to the United States where President Donald J. Trump welcomed her with a visit to the White House. “We are very happy to have Aya back home,” Trump exclaimed while seated next to Hijazi during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.1 Even by the standards of an already unorthodox presidency, the scene was a strange one.

Reporting on Hijazi’s release, Egyptian state media vacillated between viewing the case as an affirmation of the Egyptian judiciary’s impartiality, and signaling that US-Egyptian relations were improving under Trump. The Trump administration was careful not to frame its calls for Hijazi’s release as part of a wider critique of Egypt’s abysmal human rights record under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In fact, Hijazi later told the American PBS television station that in her brief conversation with Trump it was clear that he believed her imprisonment came at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamad Morsi and not, as had been the case, by the resurgent authoritarian regime that brought Sisi to power following a July 2013 military coup that removed the Morsi government.

At the time of her release, Hijazi was one of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners arrested since Sisi upended the post-Mubarak transition and repressed all forms of dissent. Meanwhile, amid celebrating his ability to secure Hijazi’s return, Trump was embattled in legal challenges to his controversial executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. The Hijazi affair, as an opportunity to spin a highly politicized trial into a political victory, was a joint co-production by two presidents whose particular brand of politics revels in sensationalist distractions while masking the deeper destruction caused by their policies.

To be sure, Egypt’s recent trajectory predated Trump’s unexpected rise. Upon extinguishing the revolutionary aspirations of Egyptians who mobilized against the Mubarak regime, Sisi sought to legitimize his claims to power on the basis of restoring security and economic prosperity to an ailing nation. In doing so, he employed many of the same tactics that would come to define his American counterpart’s brash entry into US politics—launching an aggressive counter-terrorism campaign, particularly in the face of a growing militant insurgency in Sinai, and announcing large scale development projects such as the $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal. Trump aimed to pursue both goals of security and economic prosperity in one fell swoop with his calls for the construction of a border wall with Mexico. In fact, last November Trump seized on an attack on a Sinai mosque that killed over 300 people to restate his case for the wall and the travel ban.

To claim that Trump’s election was a boon to authoritarian forces across the Arab region would be to state the obvious. Not that Trump’s predecessor obstructed the ambitions of regional autocrats, but in consolidating his control Sisi advanced a narrative that viewed Barack Obama’s supposed embrace of the Arab uprisings with deep suspicion and fueled anti-American resentment. In contrast to the mild protestations of the Obama administration, Sisi found a more sympathetic ear in Trump, who pledged that his administration would not “lecture” Arab leaders, a statement interpreted by many observers as a green light for authoritarian regimes to continue their repressive policies without fear of admonishment. Undoubtedly excited by this prospect, Sisi became the first head of state to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory.

Indeed, Trumpism represents a departure from the traditional American posture toward regimes that fulfill US strategic aims but engage in unsavory practices in the process. Whereas successive US administrations have preferred to look away, uncomfortable with openly endorsing authoritarian policies while nonetheless offering crucial military, economic and diplomatic support, Trump has removed the veneer of deniability and embraced the worst excesses of his Arab allies, especially Sisi.

The two share a deep affinity for sweeping emotional appeals that feed into hyper-nationalist popular sentiments. In an eerie parallel of Trump’s trademark slogan vowing to “Make America Great Again,” Sisi has been fond of reminding supporters that “Egypt is the mother of the world, and will be as great as the world.” But like the breathtaking speed with which Trump diminished US diplomatic standing globally, Egypt’s regional position has never been as weak or as irrelevant as it is under Sisi, who has done little more than enlist Egypt as a junior partner in the recently formed US-Saudi-Emirati-Israeli axis. Sisi appeared front and center alongside Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the infamous glowing orb photo from last spring’s Riyadh summit that was widely ridiculed as gratuitous exhibitionism masquerading as renewed American leadership.

As Trump’s first year became notable for his failure to pass a series of policy initiatives—such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act—and also saw him hounded by an investigation into his campaign’s links to Russia, he utilized his social media clout to distract from these unflattering headlines through high profile feuds with celebrities and athletes. For a former military man who has traditionally shunned the spotlight, Sisi has surprisingly masked his own failures—from the struggling economy to the continued security crisis—through a series of spectacles that have consumed public attention. Egyptian authorities banned a singer from performing because of a joke she made about drinking water from the Nile River. Another pop star was sentenced to two years in prison for “inciting debauchery” in a music video, while a well-known actor faced accusations of “contempt of religion” over the content of his latest film and was summoned for questioning.

Indeed, the regime’s attempts to construct an image of itself as the enforcer of public morality has resulted in a brutal crackdown against Egypt’s gay community even as Sisi positioned himself as the moderate alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood’s supposed fanaticism. Trump’s audacious posturing to his conservative base has similarly found him in unfamiliar territory, issuing a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military and rolling back reproductive rights.

Meanwhile, as he rails against his treatment at the hands of the US media, Trump can only admire from afar as Sisi confronts unflattering media reports by arresting journalists, usually on the charge of “disseminating false news,” leading Egypt to become the world’s third largest jailer of journalists according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. [2]

If Sisi has found a kindred spirit in Trump and embraced a presidential style that thrives in bombastic pronouncements and calculated deflections, it has become all too tempting for observers to focus their attention on such antics rather than on the subtle ways in which his autocratic impulses have manifested. For all of their protestations, both Sisi and Trump would rather keep eyes transfixed on “fake news” headlines than on what the scholar Nathan Brown has termed “boring news,” that is, the incremental structural transformations to governing institutions that embed authoritarian practices. It is those developments and their destructive consequences that aim to ensure that the Trump phenomenon and its emboldening effects on Egypt’s ruler leave a permanent imprint on the lives of Egyptians.


Endnotes

[1] Steve Holland, “Trump Greets Egyptian-American Freed from Egyptian Detention,” Reuters, April 21, 2017.
[2] Saba Aziz, “Record High 262 Journalists Imprisoned in 2017: CPJ,” Al-Jazeera, December 13, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Abdullah Al-Arian "Egypt Dispatch," Middle East Report 283 (Summer 2017).
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