Seduced by a Strongman?

Why Egypt's Sisi Could Be More Dangerous than Washington Thinks

A soldier secures a road during the presidential elections in Cairo, May 26, 2014. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Cairo is coming unhinged. From razing a buffer zone between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, to criminalizing membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, to using lethal force against activists who violate the country’s protest law, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has crafted an internal security strategy heavy on birdshot, bulldozers, and pliant judges.

Foreign policy realists may argue that Egypt’s domestic problems are its own; they don’t change U.S. strategic interests. The Obama administration’s release of previously embargoed military aid to Egypt—and simultaneous concession that the country’s human rights record is cause for concern—would seem to align with that reading.

However, it is not true that domestic politics can be quarantined from foreign policy. In fact, Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies are becoming more entangled by the day. And that bleed-over should raise concerns.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo June, 22, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo June, 22, 2014. Brendan Smialowski / Reuters


In its approach to internal security, the regime fails to differentiate—and some would argue purposefully conflates—extremists with non-violent political opponents. As Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently argued, “the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State is not large.” Such sentiments are nothing new in Egypt, but what is new is the fervor the regime cultivates in rooting out the Islamist scourge and its translation into foreign policy.

During the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ascent after the 2011 Revolution, those opposed to the group became wary of what they referred to the “Ikhwanization” of the state. From security personnel sporting beards to banks issuing bonds that conformed to the principles of Islamic finance, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood saw these developments as signs of an Islamist takeover. After the Brotherhood was removed from power in 2013 and was subsequently declared a terrorist organization, the new government pushed to “de-Ikhwanize” the state—a pursuit that extends into the foreign policy realm.

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