Funding Authoritarianism: Our Worst Counter-Terrorism Tactic

In his inaugural speech, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that “France will always make sure to be on the side of … human rights.” A few weeks ago, Macron expressed his discomfort with “lecturing” the leaders of other states, right before discussing a billion-dollar arms deal with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Unfortunately, this gap between rhetoric and action has long been the norm among Western leaders. When he paid lip service to the concerns of rights groups but ultimately emphasized Egypt’s role as an ally in the fight against extremism, Macron was following a well-trodden path.

The human rights abuses in Egypt that Western nations have been willing to overlook in the name of security and financial interests are astounding in their cruelty and pervasiveness. Under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, there were 460 reports of torture between 1993-2008, 56 killings of migrants attempting to cross into Israel between 2007-2008, hundreds of gay Egyptians rounded up, tortured, and raped, and hundreds of extrajudicial detentions of Mubarak’s political opponents. Every year the U.S. State Department’s report on human rights under Mubarak contained analysis such as “the government’s respect for human rights remained poor” or “serious abuses continued in many areas”, including torture and repression of press freedom. But Mubarak fought Islamic extremists, honored the Camp David Accords, and granted the U.S. military access to Egypt’s military bases and waterways, so those abuses were ignored and support continued. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton responded to questions about Egypt’s human rights abuses in 2009 by pointing out that “we all have room for improvement” and calling then-president Mubarak a friend of her family. When Mubarak’s fall appeared imminent in 2011, Secretary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama’s then-national security adviser all (unsuccessfully) urged Obama to stand behind Mubarak. The overthrow of Mubarak and Egypt’s first democratic presidential election led to high hopes for President Mohamed Morsi, but Morsi also cracked down on his political opponents, as well as restricting freedom of press and freedom of expression. Military commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s subsequent rise to power in 2013 was particularly horrific. Security forces under the direct command of Sisi massacred hundreds of in one day, going so far as to block all exits, fire on protesters attempting to flee, and have snipers in helicopters fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Since 2015, the Sisi regime has extrajudicially detained or executed approximately 1,700 Egyptians and 60,000 more have been arrested for political reasons. Since September of 2017, dozens of gay Egyptians, labeled “queer suspects,” have been rounded up, beaten, and sexually abused by Egyptian security forces. Last month, Amnesty International called conditions under Sisi Egypt’s “worst human rights crisis in recent history”.

Gay Egyptians being arrested /

And yet Western powers continue to prop Egypt up, just as leaders spanning various countries and party affiliations have done for decades. The United States policy of sending Egypt billions of dollars of aid was initiated under President Carter and has been continued by all of the Republican and Democratic presidents who succeeded him. In France, Socialist Party President Francois Hollande made noises about human rights as he signed deals worth billions of dollars with Sisi, and centrist President Macron has followed in his footsteps. After the center-right and center-left parties of Germany both voted in favor of it, center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel approved an agreement with Egypt in which Germany will share “information, technical training, and expertise” with Sisi’s brutal security forces. Canadian Prime Minister/liberal icon Justin Trudeau has continued the Conservative Party’s policy of selling arms to Egypt. Sending money and weapons to Egypt’s succession of repressive regimes has long been bipartisan consensus at the highest level of Western governments.

This symbolic, strategic, and financial support for Egypt is constantly justified in the name of security interests, and discomfort with Egypt’s human rights abuses is simplyconsidered a necessary evil. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, the American position has always been that “financing […] should be without condition.” Although President Obama temporarily halted aid to Egypt following Sisi’s massacre of demonstrators, Obama was unable to live up to the words of his 2002 speech calling on President Bush to “fight to make sure our so-called allies, […] the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people and suppressing dissent”. Instead, his Secretaries of State and Defense persuaded him that Egypt was too crucial an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, and so he caved and resumed sending aid, admitting that “the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests”. Even after Sisi’s forces bombed a convoy of Mexican tourists, killing eight, the transfer of American, British, German, and French aid and arms to Egypt has continued unabated.

Cartoon of Aid to Egypt /

Is it naive and idealistic to argue that human rights concerns should be placed above issues of stability and security? The point is moot; Western facilitation of repressive regimes has consistently backfired, undermining rather than bolstering stability and security. Consider Iran: after a previous failed attempt by the United Kingdom, President Dwight Eisenhower and the CIA successfully overthrew the democratically-elected, left-wing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in order to shore up the power of pro-Western, anti-Soviet monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi’s secret police silenced all opposition through the use of extrajudicial detention and torture, with both implicit and explicit support from the U.S. This repression caused national dissent (and anti-Western sentiment) within Iran, and a diverse mass movement eventually overthrew Pahlavi. Islamic extremists used public unrest and the power vacuum to gain control, leading to almost forty years of enmity between Iran and the West. Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan until his death in September of 2016, was another useful ally against America’s ideological opponents in the mold of Shah Pahlavi, playing an integral role in the War on Terror thanks to Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan. Karimov was a vicious dictator who violently suppressed religious freedom, arresting, torturing, and killing (including through the use of boiling alive) thousands of Muslims, pushing religious communities underground and encouraging radicalism. His willingness to facilitate U.S. security interests led President Bush and President Obama to largely overlook atrocities that he carried out, with the notable exception of a delayed call that Bush made in 2005 for an independent investigation into one of the massacres Karimov ordered. The chill in relations that this action caused was temporary, however, and the United States, along with Germany, continued sending millions of dollars in arms and aid to Karimov up until his death. The consequences of supporting his regime have been severe both within and without Uzbekistan. Approximately 1,500 Uzbeks have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and terrorist attacks by Uzbek-born extremists have killed 88 people throughout the last 16 months.

Repressive autocracies legitimize extremist groups and contribute to radicalization, and yet Western powers keep funding and supporting them for the stated purpose of fighting extremism. Greed can explain the unassailable nature of arms deals with countries like Egypt, but aid and security arrangements are clearly predicated on the belief that supporting these countries is the best way to support stability and fight extremism. The removal of a dictator might lead to an “anti-Western” government, but even when ignoring humanitarian factors and viewing the issue strictly as a security concern, it’s apparent that freedom and self-determination must be genuinely encouraged as a tool in the fight against extremism. Speeches are not enough. Governments that suppress dissent and violate the rights of their citizens need to be cut off from Western money and arms. Policies like the ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia that was proposed by British Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn would be a welcome break from decades of counterproductive support for autocracies. A new consensus should be formed, in which promoting security interests is considered synonymous with promoting freedom.

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