On Sunday April 9, after bombings in Tanta and Alexandria that reportedly killed 45 people, US President Donald Trump condemned the attacks, adding he has “confidence that President Al Sisi will handle the situation properly.” His statement follows President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first visit to the White House last week, when Trump told him he is doing “a fantastic job” and assured him he has found “a great friend and ally in the United States and me.”
While the burgeoning relationship between the two heads of state doesn’t necessarily mark any kind of drastic departure from the past in terms of US policy concerning Egypt — the Obama administration never pushed Egypt on its human rights record in any kind of meaningful way either —Sisi has found in Trump, not only someone who is willing to look the other way concerning human rights abuses, but an ally who sees Egypt’s leadership similarly to how it sees itself.
Sisi has repeatedly spoken of the threat of “Islamic extremism,” while at the same time promoting his notion of an acceptable, “moderate Islam.” Though the two presidents may differ ideologically, Trump has an ally in Sisi that is willing to support the fear-mongering his team has been dishing out since he first announced he would run for US president.
Sisi’s US visit was met with outrage from many Western papers. “Egypt’s president is a bloodthirsty dictator. Trump thinks he’s done a “fantastic job,” reads a headline on Vox. The New York Times published an op-ed written by its editorial board titled, “Enabling Egypt’s President Sisi, an Enemy of Human Rights.” Yet, as Glenn Greenwald asserts, these expressions of moral outrage are somewhat hypocritical in the context of the US’ position as a strong ally to Egypt since former President Hosni Mubarak’s presidency.
It takes the rise of Islamic extremism out of the colonial and imperial contexts in which it emerged and the environments that enable such ideas to gain ground.
US President Barack Obama reinstated military aid to Egypt in 2015, after it was temporarily frozen amid debate over whether or not Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster was a coup or not. And both Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry expressed their support for Sisi, despite ongoing human rights abuses under his leadership, though this support was largely perfunctory and lacked the effusiveness of Trump’s praise. Behind the scenes, relations between the two nations were strained under Obama. In 2015, former military Colonel Derek Harvey, who Trump has named a senior adviser on the Middle East, criticized Obama for not being warmer to Sisi, based on his record of fighting “the threat of violent, intolerant Islamic jihadism at great personal risk.”
In Trump, Sisi has also found support for the image he wishes to project of himself: that of the strongman fighting terrorism. It is an image Egyptian mainstream media has picked up willingly, publishing numerous articles about the special relationship between the two men and their governments.
Trump’s administration is stacked with individuals who have publicly stated that they see “extremist Islam” as a fundamental threat to civilization. These aides include Harvey and Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart news and, by all reports, Trump’s most influential adviser.
Bannon draws heavily on Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis that cultural and religious divides will be the greatest source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. Bannon sees “radical Islamic terrorism” as the primary enemy in this fight.
This reductionary worldview is dangerous in that it takes the rise of Islamic extremism out of the colonial and imperial contexts in which it has emerged and the environments that enable such ideas to gain ground. And it must also be viewed as part of a wider geopolitical wave that has been sweeping the US and Europe. Marine Le Pen in France, Teresa May in Britain and Trump have all used the threat of “Islamic extremism” to control the movement of people, whether through the “Muslim ban” in the US or migration policies in Europe.
The authority of Egypt’s new State Security Emergency Courts will be determined by laws that are yet to be issued and pushed through on the coattails of the church attacks.
Framing Islamism as the biggest threat Egypt faces is a method of survival for Sisi. The country is in dire economic straits, and Sisi’s presidency has not brought about the turnaround that he and the military establishment promised when they ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Instead, he has invested in ostentatious mega-projects as the price of bread continues to rise and inflation skyrockets.
Yet, even amid growing criticism of Sisi’s presidency and dire economic circumstances, pushing through stronger counter-terrorism measures that would result in a fiercer crackdown on political opponents and restrict civil liberties was not necessarily going to be popular with all Egyptians.
After the tragic church bombings of April 9, however, which were claimed by the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai, Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency and the establishment of State Security Emergency Courts, the authority of which will be determined by laws that are yet to be issued and pushed through on the coattails of these attacks. These courts will have no appeal process and will ensure that the prosecution of “terrorists” is expedited with the president’s approval.
Sisi was careful to condemn the Palm Sunday attacks as being against “all Egyptians,” without acknowledgement that Christians in Egypt have suffered from state policies that have discriminated against them for years. He also didn’t acknowledge that the state’s heavy crackdown on dissent and militant activity in Sinai has provided a space in which extremist ideas have been able to flourish.
Addressing all Egyptians on Sunday evening, Sisi claimed that the church attacks are retribution for military successes in Sinai and urged the international community to stand together against terrorism. Referring to a speech he made as defense minister in July 2013 after Morsi’s ouster, he said, “remember when I asked for permission to face terrorism and violence? I was talking then about a long war.”
Note: Co-authored with Neal Hussein.