In an April 8, 2019 op-ed for Foreign Policy, “The Double Talk of Trump’s Favorite Dictator,” POMED’s Executive Director Stephen McInerney and Deputy Director for Research Amy Hawthorne examine Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime façade of religious tolerance.
Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump’s praise of one of his favorite strongmen, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was effusive. “El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!” Trump exclaimed in a tweet about the opening of a huge new cathedral outside Cairo, which was built by the Egyptian military and is the largest in the Middle East. Trump’s tweet echoed one of the main arguments of Sisi’s backers. Sure, he is a military-backed authoritarian, the thinking goes, but he’s also the kind of Muslim leader who fights Islamist extremism and champions equal rights for religious minorities, especially Egypt’s Christians.
Sisi has worked hard to craft his enlightened image. Since seizing power in a 2013 coup, he has expressly portrayed himself as a heroic reformer of Islam—he has called on scholars at Al-Azhar University, one of the country’s most prestigious religious institutions, to re-examine controversial Islamic teachings—and a protector of Christians, who constitute some 10 percent of the population. Sisi has charmed many a delegation of Americans, who return from Cairo and write glowingly of his courage on religious freedom. When Sisi visits the White House on Tuesday, the U.S. administration is likely to bestow on him yet more compliments in this vein.
But even a quick look at Sisi’s actual record shows how misplaced such praise is. Initially, many Egyptian Christians did welcome Sisi’s ouster of the elected but illiberal Muslim Brotherhood government, hoping he would usher in a new era of security and reform. But over the past several years, disillusionment has set in. Under Sisi’s repressive rule, the Egyptian state continues to treat members of minority faiths as second-class citizens. Sisi has done nothing to address pervasive problems such as economic discrimination toward non-Muslims; the presence of a “blasphemy” clause in the penal code that the government wields against alleged critics of Islam; the authorities’ persistent failure to prevent sectarian attacks on Christians; discriminatory restrictions on church building; and an absence of even the most basic legal rights for members of faiths other than Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Read the full analysis here.