As Strongmen Steamroll Their Opponents, U.S. Is Silent

A billboard in Cairo of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. Potential rivals in the presidential race, scheduled for March, have been sidelined, jailed or threatened with prosecution.

CAIRO — When it comes to securing a second term in power, Egypt’s president is leaving little to chance.

Potential rivals in the March election have been sidelined, jailed or threatened with prosecution. The news media is largely in his pocket. On polling day, Egyptians will have a choice between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and one of his most ardent supporters — an obscure politician drafted at the 11th hour to avoid the embarrassment of a one-horse race.

As he cruises toward victory, Mr. Sisi need not worry either about foreign censure: President Trump has hailed the Egyptian leader as a “fantastic guy,” and most other Western leaders have been largely silent.

Across the world, autocratic leaders are engaging in increasingly brazen behavior — rigging votes, muzzling the press and persecuting opponents — as they dispense with even a fig leaf of democratic practice once offered to placate the United States or gain international legitimacy.

The global tide is driven by a bewildering range of factors, including the surge of populism in Europe, waves of migration, and economic inequality. And leaders of countries like Egypt, which had long been sensitive to Washington’s influence, know they run little risk of rebuke from an American president who has largely abandoned the promotion of human rights and democracy in favor of his narrow “America First” agenda.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 33 years, has led a sweeping crackdown on opponents before elections this summer. In November, Mr. Trump flashed a big thumbs-up as he posed for a photo with Mr. Hun Sen, who later praised the American president for what he called his lack of interest in human rights.

In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández was inaugurated for a second term on Saturday amid uproar from opposition figures who accused him of rigging the vote, and despite calls for a new election from the Organization of American States. Washington ignored the O.A.S. findings, with the American chargé d’affaires offering only tepid statements calling on all sides to behave peacefully.

And the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who was once forced to surrender power for four years to respect his Constitution, has barred the main opposition challenger in the March election, virtually assuring that he will win a fourth term. Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed his desires for closer ties with Mr. Putin.

Despite decades of lofty American talk of democracy and human rights, espoused by every president since Jimmy Carter, policies have prioritized security and strategic considerations over principle. And the C.I.A. torture program after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks further undermined America’s standing.

Mr. Trump has barely paid lip service to the promotion of universal human rights, and experts say his warm embrace of hard-line leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose antidrug drive has killed thousands of his own citizens without due process, has only encouraged their worst excesses.

“The issue is a troubling one,” Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. “Trump’s lionizing of the ‘strong’ leadership qualities of authoritarian personalities like Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, and Sisi — as well as his own attacks on free press at home — cannot help but to embolden their efforts to crack down on civil society and crush dissent in their own countries.”

Trump administration officials question the value of publicly lecturing friendly autocrats about their record, arguing that such criticisms are more effectively made in private. Last year, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said that while American “values” like freedom and human dignity still underpinned American policies abroad, insisting that others adopt those values “creates obstacles” to advancing American security and economic interests.

Mr. Trump, however, has not hesitated to use human rights as a cudgel against unfriendly countries, like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, whose records he criticized in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Critics say that by not confronting allies, Mr. Trump is ceding valuable leverage over strongmen, who, despite their worst actions, still care about their international image.

“Bad governments behave badly, no matter what,” said Tom Malinowski, who was assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Obama administration. “But they take the expected American reaction into account when making decisions.”

Citing the example of Egypt, Mr. Malinowski added: “If you’re going to send your security forces out to kill a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, knowing the U.S. is going to be in your face when it happens, and that it could have an impact on security cooperation, that’s a factor. It doesn’t mean you’ll do everything the Americans want. But it does probably mean that fewer people get killed.”

American rhetoric on human rights is seen cynically in parts of the world where Washington has a history of selectively embracing despots.

During the Cold War, the United States allied with Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo; the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; and Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile. More recently, President Barack Obama was openly disdainful of Mr. Sisi’s harsh tactics yet left untouched America’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

Even so, an American president’s rhetoric can make a significant difference.

“Yes, realpolitik often wins out over values, and it often seems steeped in hypocrisy,” said Michael Wahid Hanna of The Century Foundation in New York. But, he added, espousal of those values by American officials “is neither 100 percent cynical, nor is it inconsequential.”

One good example of that is in Egypt where, although American policy has long been driven by security concerns, activists say there was traditionally a valuable margin for human rights issues.

“Maybe 85 percent of the time they were supportive of the regime and stability,” said Heba Morayef of Amnesty International. “But there was a lot we could do with the other 15 percent.”

But under President Trump, that margin has drastically shrunk, and now Mr. Sisi is heading for re-election in what the Project on Middle East Democracy this week called “the most repressive political environment in Egypt’s modern history.”

In the past month, four prominent challengers to Mr. Sisi have quit the race. Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister, withdrew after being held for a month at a Cairo hotel where security officials threatened to prosecute him on corruption charges.

Last week Sami Anan, a former army chief with longstanding ties to the United States, dropped out after being imprisoned by the military on charges of forgery and incitement. Days later Mr. Anan’s running mate was beaten up outside his home by pro-government thugs.

In a muted response, a State Department spokeswoman noted Mr. Anan’s arrest with “concern” and said officials were “watching the situation very closely.”

Now Mr. Sisi’s sole challenger is Moussa Moustapha Moussa, an architect with longstanding loyalties to Egypt’s security services. Mr. Moussa is best known for helping President Hosni Mubarak split a small opposition party in 2008, in part by leading a gang of thugs that smashed the party’s offices and set it on fire.

The Trump administration did rebuke Mr. Sisi last summer when it froze or canceled more than $290 million in military aid over concerns about Egypt’s covert ties to North Korea and a law passed by Mr. Sisi sharply restricting aid work in Egypt, especially by Western organizations.

But any critical message for Mr. Sisi was overshadowed by Mr. Trump’s praise for his rule.

Mr. Trump’s priorities are further underscored by his failure to appoint an assistant secretary of state for human rights, and by Mr. Tillerson’s unusual snubbing last year of the presentation for the release of the State Department’s annual report on global human rights.

Mr. Trump is not alone in his silence over countries like Egypt. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany, also grappling with the surge in populist politics in their own countries, have said little about Mr. Sisi’s election crackdown as well.

The most senior Western visitor to Cairo of late was the French spy chief who, according to the Egyptian presidency, expressed his appreciation to Mr. Sisi for his efforts in bringing peace to the region.

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