While a minority of Egyptian voters straggled to the polls last week to ratify a new constitution enshrining a police state; while emerging strongman Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi theatrically prepared to announce whether he will deign to become president; and while Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself “hopeful — though not yet certain” that the military regime’s promised transition to democracy is on track, the most genuine and committed supporters of a secular liberal order in Egypt were sitting in Cairo’s Tora prison.
According to the National Council on Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel, Ahmed Douma and Alaa Abdel Fattah were suffering from mistreatment, including confinement to their cells for more than 20 hours a day, and had not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. Naturally, they were unable to vote in the referendum, which approved a charter that exempts the military, police and intelligence services from civilian oversight and subjects anyone those agencies consider threatening to summary trial in a military court.
The four men were jailed in late November for the crime of protesting a new law banning all protests, not long after Kerry proclaimed that “the road map” to democracy “is being carried out to the best of our perception.” On Dec. 22, Maher, Adel and Douma were sentenced to three years of imprisonment.
Their real crime is known to everyone in Egypt: They were the prime intellectual authors and organizers of the January 2011 demonstrations that brought down the military-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak. They are leftist, secular intellectuals who have devoted their adult lives to fighting for human rights as the West conceives of them: free speech, free elections, gender equality, religious tolerance. They are in jail because the generals and secret police they ousted have returned to power, literally with a vengeance.
Who are the allies of the United States in Egypt? The Obama administration’s judgment is crystal clear: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has plied Sissi with more than two dozen phone calls since he led a coup against the elected Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi in July, while Kerry has repeatedly endorsed the general’s increasingly implausible claim to be building a democracy — as opposed to restoring the pre-2011 dictatorship in a more repressive form. The administration just persuaded Congress to pass legislation exempting it from an awkward ban on giving aid to regimes that gained power through a military coup so that the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Sissi’s army can keep flowing.
Sissi and his cohort, however, are anything but pro-American. The media they control have been orchestrating an orgy of vile propaganda, charging the United States with everything from seeking to carve Egypt into pieces to subverting its morals.
Maher, Adel, Douma and Abdel Fattah aren’t particularly pro-American either — no one in Egypt is these days. But they at least share core American values. If they and their followers ever came to power, Egypt might come to resemble India or Brazil: a sometimes difficult partner but a democratic one. That is another reason they are in jail: The military’s strategy is to present Washington with a choice between their secular thuggishness and that of the Islamists.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, has been arguing for a decade that the West, led by the United States, should base its policies involving Egypt and the rest of the Middle East on alliance with such democratic dissidents. When I saw him last week, he was despairing about the disastrous results of Obama’s decision to embrace first Mubarak, then Morsi and now Sissi.
“Today in Egypt people believe that America is on the side of freedom even less than they did in the time of Mubarak,” Sharansky said. “Such a huge change happened in Egypt, and yet Washington remains the same. Whoever takes power is supported — and with each cycle, there is more instability and America is less supported by the Egyptian people.”
Why not make it a U.S. priority to free Maher, Adel, Douma and Abdel Fattah and to help them and people like them organize a genuinely democratic mass movement? That used to be dismissed as unrealistic; Egyptians supposedly weren’t interested in democracy. But 2011 disproved that canard. That the country is reverting to authoritarianism shows only that the old order and the Islamists were better organized to seize power after the revolution. Shouldn’t the United States aim to correct that?
“If you were to start putting a focus on the real democrats in Egypt, and on building civil society, and stuck with that, in a few years you would have a real democratic change,” Sharansky said. Instead, this U.S. president appears committed to repeating past mistakes.
Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post.