What is John Kerry really telling Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi? Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
What is John Kerry really telling Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi? Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The timing of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting last weekend with Egypt's newly elected president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, was unfortunate. What it says about the confusion that reigns over U.S. foreign policy in Egypt is worse.

In Cairo, Kerry assured El-Sisi that U.S. military aid that had been frozen because of Egypt's atrocious human-rights record -- including the killing of 1,150 mostly unarmed protesters last year -- would be released "very soon." Less than 24 hours later, an Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to jail for seven to 10 years for doing their jobs.

Egypt’s Revolution

It's worth quoting in full Kerry's reasoning for ending the freeze on aid and, in essence, handing El-Sisi a blank check for U.S. support: "He gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a re-evaluation of human-rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process, and other choices that are available are very much on his mind, and that he’s only been in office for 10 days, but he indicated to me that we should work closely, as we will, and stay tuned to what he is going to try to implement over the course of these next days, weeks and months."

That is, to put it politely, naive. El-Sisi has been running Egypt since he seized power in a military coup a year ago. Nothing suggests he has begun to alter his policies. The only thing that appears to have changed since his election is that he now wears a suit instead of a uniform.

Since last July, El-Sisi has done nothing to respond to U.S. admonishments over his brutal methods. On the contrary: About 20,000 of his political opponents, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood but also the liberal opposition, have been jailed; each mass trial of alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters becomes more Orwellian than the last; media freedoms have been suppressed; and Bassem Youssef, the so-called Jon Stewart of Egypt, was forced off the air just days after El-Sisi's election.

The situation in Egypt would test any U.S. president. Still, is it too much to ask for some consistency? There are at least two choices.

The Barack Obama administration could acknowledge that, after a brief experiment with democracy that brought the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, another dictatorship in Egypt is consistent with U.S. security interests, which includes honoring Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. If the U.S. is releasing the aid because doing so is required by the peace treaty, Kerry should just say so.

Or the administration could say that the primary U.S. interest in the Middle East is combating the rise and spread of anti-Western Islamist terrorist organizations, and that El-Sisi isn't helping. His repressive tactics are not only antagonizing the Muslim Brotherhood, but they also are inflaming sentiment that is leading to the rise of more dangerous Islamist terrorist groups.

The facts suggest that El-Sisi is intent on building a state at least as repressive as that of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who enjoyed decades of U.S. support until he was toppled by pro-democracy protests in 2011. The U.S. supported the aims of those protests. Now it is supporting a man who is brutally turning back the clock.

No wonder a poll published today found that Americans are confused about what exactly U.S. policy in the Middle East is. Undoubtedly Egyptians are, too.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.