Shadi Hamid writes: Since the July 3 military coup in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi – the country’s charismatic strongman – more than 25 times. The two men reportedly first bonded somewhat over a two-hour lunch in April. Apparently, Sissi liked Hagel’s “bluntness.” Their relationship, forged during one of the worst spells of violence in Egypt’s modern history, provides an interesting, if unsettling, window into the strategic drift of U.S. policy in Egypt as well as the broader region.
Since that first lunch, Hagel and Sissi have spoken often. Out of the 30 or so total calls, the U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive. Egypt is the only country where Hagel has a regular, direct line of communication not just with the minister of defense but also the (effective) head of state, since Sissi happens to be both. With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region’s more brutal, repressive regimes to be “democratic.” Although there are certainly competitors—Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind—it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground.
There is little to suggest that Hagel’s exhortations have had even a minimal effect on Sissi and the Egyptian government’s conduct. Since the coup, there have been four mass killings, including the worst massacre in decades; some 10,000 people have been arrested or detained; and opposition protests have been banned. The crackdown has extended to secular activists as well, with three leading revolutionaries sentenced to three years in prison. [Continue reading…]