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Unlike his favourite dictator in Egypt, Trump is a weak authoritarian

US President Donald Trump hosts a campaign rally in Lititz, Pennsylvania on 26 October 2020 [Tayfun Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]
US President Donald Trump hosts a campaign rally in Lititz, Pennsylvania on 26 October 2020 [Tayfun Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]

Once upon a time, America's democratic values and ideals collided with the cold realities of war and dictatorship in Egypt. In July 2013, though, Barack Obama's idealistic rhetoric surrendered to the realities of geopolitics. The 44th President of the United States of America and his Vice President Joe Biden should have realised that conceding democratic values and principles would backfire on them one day.

It is a striking irony that American values are adopted and promoted whenever favoured democratic elections are to be upheld, whereas political interests are prioritised — and democratic values are thrown under the bus — whenever it suits those in the White House.

Today's oppressive President of Egypt was, in 2013, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the Minister of Defence under democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. Al-Sisi it was who orchestrated the protests against the "Muslim Brotherhood president" and the coup which ousted him. Morsi's ouster was followed by a massive crackdown on dissent and the killing of at least 817 Egyptian citizens by the security forces in just one day in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. This was, said Human Rights Watch, a crime against humanity.

The Obama-Biden administration expressed deep concern about the Egyptian military's removal of a democratically-elected president, and called for a quick return to civilian leadership. What they did not call this "removal" was "a coup" as that would have required them, under US law, to stop all aid to Egypt. Instead, Obama ordered a review of the law regarding aid to America's vital Middle East ally.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Although the contexts are incomparable, the recent images coming out from America, with its entrenched democracy, do bring to mind similar images from Cairo a few short years ago, when the Egyptian efforts to breathe some democratic air after decades of oppression, deprivation and tyranny were snuffed out by Al-Sisi's brutal military regime.

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Donald Trump and his supporters have been tweeting images of crowds in 'millions' in various states showing support for the US President. The crowds amassed to protest against the result of a democratic election bear a striking resemblance to those on the streets of Cairo in the run-up to the 2013 Egyptian coup that toppled Morsi.

People from all walks of life followed the US presidential election closely. The US has always been perceived as the beacon of democracy; its electoral campaigns and dynamics are a dream for many people in developing countries.

Democrat Joe Biden has been declared President-elect, but Trump refuses to concede and is challenging the result, alleging electoral fraud. Observers, lawyers, constitutional experts and political strategists are now pouring over possible scenarios in case Trump seeks to subvert the democratic process and refuse to move over.

US election 2020 - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US election 2020 – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The US President once called his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi his "favourite dictator". Will he, I wonder, now follow his favourite dictator's example by refusing to respect the will of the electorate and extend his term in office by any means necessary?

On 30 June 2013, Morsi was still the President of Egypt and Al-Sisi was his Minister of Defence. Protesters took to the streets chanting "Down with Morsi!" They called on the army to intervene. US President Barack Obama spoke to Morsi and encouraged him to make 'bold decisions'. The then US Ambassador in Cairo, Anne Paterson, apparently told Morsi's senior aide, "Your audience is General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, not the people."

Al-Sisi and the Egyptian military establishment duly used the anti-government protests to take over the country and put its democratically-elected president behind bars. Obama was appalled by the massacres that followed the coup. "We can't return to business as usual," he declared after the Rabaa massacre. "We have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and ideals."

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However, in the end, he caved in. A few months after the massacre and while the brutal crackdown on dissent was ongoing, he released the cash transfers and the F-16s along with the $1.3 billion annual aid package to the Egyptian coup leader, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. It was an excruciating test of Obama's Utopian rhetoric about his support for the Arab Spring and the aspirations of the nations in the Middle East. He failed the test. Democratic values were trampled under the boots of cold-blooded security and political interests.

As Trump's supporters turn out in Washington DC to back him, they have been joined by far-right groups, some of whose members wear helmets and bullet-proof vests. That is a very serious development.

The worst-case scenario is not that Trump will not respect the election outcome, but that he will block the creation of a consensus about the result. Trump and his Republican allies can impede "a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress". He could grasp that ambiguity in order to cling to power.

If Trump refuses to vacate the Oval Office, President-elect Joe Biden believes that the proper authorities "will escort him from the White House with great dispatch." The American establishment won't accept Trump's political intimidation and public bullying. Nevertheless, there is a first time for everything.

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Read what Obama writes in his recently published book A Promised Land: "Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis — a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted."

Trump has the mouth but doesn't have the muscle to force his will without accountability. In Egypt, an elected president along with dozens of parliamentarians and thousands of civil society activists were imprisoned in 2013 without trial; many are still there. While Trump could denounce Robert Mueller's mission to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, he doesn't have the mandate or power to sack him. He tweets all kinds of accusations about his opponents and rivals, but he can't jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints. Unlike his favourite dictator in Egypt, Trump is a weak authoritarian due to America's flawed but undoubtedly still effective democracy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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