Analysis

Only Trump Can Call Sissi His 'Favorite Dictator'

President Donald Trump's ties with President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi seem to gloss over Egypt's suppression of political critics and human rights activists

U.S. President Donald Trump meets Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi last month at the G7 summit in France.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

One can’t help but wonder what tweet would extricate U.S. President Donald Trump from his latest disastrous – but accurate – slip of the tongue at last month’s G7 summit in France.

Trump was quoted as saying “where’s my favorite dictator” as he awaited a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. This question, assuming it was in fact asked, was accompanied by the assertion that al-Sissi had been a good friend of Trump’s for a long time.

Both a favorite dictator and a close friend. Trump is lucky he isn’t an Egyptian citizen. In Egypt, people are arrested, tried and jailed for saying such things.

>> Read more: In Sissi's Egypt, a tweet can make you public enemy number one

Egypt still hasn’t officially responded. But last weekend, it was busy with another scandal.

A few days ago, businessman, actor and film director Mohamed Ali published several video clips on his Facebook and Twitter accounts in which he accused al-Sissi, members of his family and the army of corruption. One video featured a woman who is having trouble supporting her family, asking how it’s possible to earn a living in a country whose leaders are corrupt.

The shocking innovation in this video is the fact that Ali, for the first time, cited the names of generals embroiled in corruption, including Khaled Fouda, al-Sissi’s son-in-law. According to Ali, Fouda retired from the army with a fat salary, was appointed governor of Luxor, which came with another salary; and was then named governor of South Sinai, which gave him yet a third salary.

Another general named was Naim al Badrawi, who commanded the army’s engineering corps. Upon retiring, he was appointed CEO of a cement factory in El-Arish, and then as CEO of the El-Saeed contracting firm.

Ali, 45, was himself once an army subcontractor and claims the army still owes him $13.5 million. He charged that al Badrawi took a 1.5 percent cut of every project carried out by the engineering corps. The corps, he added, invested huge amounts of money in building a new palace for the Egyptian president and luxurious homes for members of al-Sissi’s family.

Ali’s Facebook account was soon closed, but numerous Egyptians had already managed to download his videos, disseminate them via YouTube and generate a storm of protest on the internet. Ali and his family fled to Spain, due to justified fears he would be arrested or made to disappear, and the justice system swiftly indicted him.

But his cluster bomb has already done its job, and the government can’t ignore its lethal shrapnel. In great haste, al-Sissi convened the National Youth Conference, which met last Saturday and discussed “the damage that publishing false information does to the country.”

The previous meeting of the National Youth Conference – which is comprised of “selected young people,” politicians and businessmen – took place in July, and it wasn’t supposed to meet again until November. But due to the uproar caused by Ali’s revelations, al-Sissi decided to advance this meeting and hold it four days after the videos were posted.

“We just want him to response to Mohammed Ali’s accusations,” wrote the social media activists who opened a special Twitter account, called “Mohamed Ali embarrassed them,” prior to Saturday’s conference.

One of them, Salwa Gamal, demanded that al-Sissi “answer Ali’s questions and put a stop to these conferences aimed at instructing the youth. There are facts and evidence to oppose the lies and rumors ... Who are you building your projects for, and who are you serving?”

On another Twitter account, called “Egyptians are miserable because...,” a woman named Lula wrote, “Egyptians are miserable because the gang is stuffing its potbelly, which is insatiable. Go away, Sissi!”

The activists are also demanding that al-Sissi free the so-called “detainees of hope,” some of whom have been in jail for three months. The 11 political activists were arrested in June, after their participation in a conference of opposition parties. The goal of the conference was to forge a new political framework called “the alliance of hope” that would run in the parliamentary election scheduled to take place in late 2020.

The detainees were accused, as usual, of conspiring to destroy the country’s economy and institutions and of assisting a terrorist organization (the Muslim Brotherhood). These are extremely serious charges, and conviction would likely result in lengthy jail terms.

As part of its battle against the “alliance of hope” activists, the 16-year-old son of Magdi Shandi, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Mashhad, was arrested last week. He was accused of spreading lies about the government. His father says the boy’s arrest was meant to pressure the elder Shandi to turn himself in, since the security forces had failed to find him. The weekly’s website was shut down in January for six months, and its owners were fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds.

This battle against human rights activists doesn’t greatly interest the Trump administration. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that America has a vital interest in maintaining good relations with Egypt. This declaration was necessary for Congress to approve the annual aid to Egypt, which comes to $1.3 billion. Without it, the administration would have had to cut or at least freeze $300 million until Egypt carries out its commitment to reduce its violations of democracy.

There’s no disputing that Egypt is a vital U.S. ally. But unfortunately for Egypt, it lacks the resources and economic might of Saudi Arabia; nobody dares to utter a peep about the human rights situation in that country. Let’s see Trump calling Saudi King Salman or his son “my favorite dictator.”