"If Egypt fails, every problem in the Mideast becomes a hundred times worse," observed Senator Lindsay Graham while leading a congressional delegation to Cairo last weekend.
Senator Graham is certainly right that Egypt, the most populous Arab state and in a key strategic location, is vital to the well-being of the Middle East. However, his prescriptions for what the United States should do to support its troubled ally are misguided, and would likely exacerbate Egypt's problems.
Graham and his delegation heaped undeserved praise on Egypt's general turned president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. They called him "the right man and at the right time," "someone I can work with," and "a military man who understands terrorism." But what Sisi actually seems to understand is how to worsen Egypt's problems with terrorism and create mounting instability.
Since coming to power in a military coup and deposing Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sisi has presided over the most severe period of repression and denial of human rights in Egypt's modern history. Thousands of protesters and government opponents have been killed, tens of thousands jailed without due process of law. Hundreds of people have been disappeared, including the abduction and murder of Italian PhD student, Giulio Regeni, who in all probability was tortured to death by Egyptian security officers, who now operate much like the Latin American Death Squads from the dark days of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile or Argentina's dirty war.
It is a grotesque irony that the U.S. government is now complicit in supporting the type of repression in Egypt that President Obama felt obliged to apologize for during his recent visit to Argentina.
Graham is aware of Sisi's mounting clampdown on the activities of independent civil society organizations, including human rights organizations. He was critical of Egypt when it prosecuted and closed down U.S. and other human rights and pro-democracy organizations in 2013. He seemed to allude to these issues when he said, "There are elements that come to Egypt to disrupt the nation and there are many people coming here to help you. Don't treat them all the same way."
This veiled language will have little effect when in the same statement Senator Graham affirmed the myth that Egypt is a "new democracy and coming out of chaos." A more accurate observation would be that Egypt was briefly moving towards democracy but has now reverted to military-backed dictatorship, and is heading into deeper chaos.
Senator Graham's headline recommendation was to increase U.S. military assistance to Egypt, regardless of the worsening human rights situation.
Secretary of State John Kerry had a different message at the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue in August 2015 when he emphasized the importance of governance issues and human rights as part of effective counterterrorism policy. Kerry said, "But the even larger imperative is to persuade and prevent young people from turning to terror in the first place. Otherwise, no matter how many terrorists we bring to justice, those groups will replenish their ranks and we will not be safer. We will be involved in a round robin, circular, repetitive process."
Kerry continued, "The success will depend on building trust between the authorities and the public, and enabling those who are critical of official policies to find a means of voicing their dissent peacefully, through participation in a political process."
As Senator Graham knows, President Sisi is engaged in systematically silencing peaceful voices of dissent in Egypt, and closing down avenues for participation in the political process. These destructive policies are pushing Egypt ever closer to the nightmare of failure that he warned against in his remarks.