At last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, the Egyptian president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi made a speech about the need for world leaders to unite against the global threat of terrorism. "The whole world, not just Muslims, needs to stand and review many points that provoke the feelings of others," he said. "We should provide a proper environment for respecting religion."
Egypt has long been seen as an ally of the west in the fight against terrorism. This was the case under the military dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in the 2011 revolution, and it is the case now. Egypt is the Middle East's most populous country, and it is seen as a key regional partner in the west's counter-terror programmes.
This goes some way to explaining the warmth shown towards Sisi at the Davos forum. Philip Rosler, the German former politician who interviewed Sisi on stage, ended the session by telling him: "The Davos community counts on your leadership." This is despite the circumstances in which Sisi came to power: essentially, a military coup in 2013, followed by an ongoing period of repression and bloodshed.
Writing about the Davos summit in the Financial Times, the commentator Gideon Rachman wrote: "It felt like the moment when the west abandoned its on-off flirtation with the democratization of the Middle East and retreated to the old formula: the embrace of an 'Arab strongman' who offers short-term stability and the repression of militant Islamism."
Since Sisi took power, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters attending street protests have been killed by security forces, and thousands more arrested, along with secular human rights activists and journalists. Media freedom is severely restricted, with the case of three international Al-Jazeera journalists jailed on spurious charges shining a light on the dire situation for the press. Western powers have periodically issued condemnations of these restrictions on freedom of expression, but have taken little meaningful diplomatic action to pressurize Egypt.
The reason for the gradual embrace of the new Egyptian regime is clear: increased international anxiety about Islamist terrorism. The rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has caused intense discussion about the best way to tackle the threat. Egypt has long been a strategic ally of the United States. This anxiety was reflected in another session at Davos, when Syria was discussed. The focus was firmly on the threat of ISIS, whereas the same forum two years ago focused on the best way to depose President Bashar al-Assad. As well as its broad-ranging repression of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is fighting Islamist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula. Some of these groups support ISIS.
Western realpolitik in dealing with the Middle East has been evident this week in the response to the death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Despite the country's harsh laws on adultery and freedom of expression, western leaders have lined up to pay their respects. It is somewhat inconsistent with the current discussion about the importance of freedom of speech, and with the western focus on exporting democracy over the last few decades. The response to Sisi shows a return to business as usual in terms of western relations to Egypt and the wider Middle East: dictatorship and repression are seen as a fair trade off for assistance in the fight against terror.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.