ISIS strikes: Why dictators are the biggest winners of Middle East unrest

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood shoulder to shoulder with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry shortly after meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday, declaring Egypt an “important partner” in America’s brewing fight against the Islamic State.

To that end, Kerry announced the U.S. – which already gives Egypt billions in military aid annually – is giving Sisi 10 Apache helicopters to help him combat “extremist groups.”

It may seem a strange endorsement for an Egyptian government the international community has condemned for jailing journalists on trumped-up charges, killing its civilians and quashing dissent to a degree unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.

“Kerry having saluted the great new man and the regime, etcetera, I think for Sisi it is very important because he represents an island of stability,” said Ferry de Kerckove, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and former Canadian ambassador to Egypt.

“So, for Egypt, it’s a plus.”

READ MORE: Kerry seeks Egypt aid in battle against extremists

‘Those hopes have all been crushed’

It’s a rough time to be a human rights advocate in the Middle East.

The heady days following the Arab Spring brought hope for more democratic, more accountable, less-likely-to-lock-you-up-or kill-you-without-cause regimes.

That hope proved woefully wrong, says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch‘s Middle East and North Africa division.

“What makes the current situation all that more painful is we all had hoped we were turning a page in the region and finally there would be a breakthrough…Those hopes have all been crushed.”

Instead, countries across the region face laws that are, in many cases, even more repressive – quicker to quash any rumblings of a dissenting civil society.

And unrest surrounding first the Israel-Palestine conflict, then the Islamic State crisis, has been a boon for the region’s dictators, Whitson said.

“Obviously they are in stronger positions, I think, directly as a result of what’s happened in Gaza and with the expansion of ISIS’s power base.”

Egypt’s Sisi: Cementing legitimacy

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who won an election international observers slammed as neither free nor fair almost a year after deposing Egypt’s first democratically elected president  and engaging in an ongoing bloody crackdown on dissent, was lauded for brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas (somewhat ironic, given that Mohammed Morsi, the man who did the same in 2012, is in an Egyptian prison under Sisi’s orders).

“Egypt and Sisi were able to reassert themselves as the region’s go-to negotiators and as the party who could intermediate between the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis, which is a role they have long played,” Whitson said.

“This gave them entryway to say, ‘Oh, it’s back to business as usual: We are the people you turn to when you need a problem solved.”

Sisi is looking to further cement his global legitimacy as the United States seeks Arab allies in its fight against ISIS. An invitation to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also help.

In the meantime, a Human Rights Watch report detailing Sisi’s orchestration of a civilian massacre in Raba’a square last summer has perhaps not garnered the hoped-for response.

“I don’t think it undermined the report; I think it just highlighted the realpolitik,” Whitson said. Sisi “serves other interests of the United States. And the interests of the Egyptian people are secondary.”

Sisi also has his own definition of the “terrorists” his government’s combating – one that tars the Muslim Brotherhood (and many unaffiliated dissenters and journalists) with an extremist brush.

“There is no pressure whatsoever” on Sisi to cease his crackdown, de Kerckhove said. “If he produces just a semblance of economic growth … the rest of the country, they don’t care about the human rights situation.”

Syria’s Assad: The enemy of your enemy…

At the same time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – whose massacre of his own civilians with cluster bombs and chemical weapons has been extensively documented and condemned – has become the lesser evil when compared to the Islamic State, Whitson said.

U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to help Assad opponents in his fight against the Islamic State. But it’s unclear who exactly those “moderate” forces would be – and many fear attacking the Islamic State would help Assad consolidate his own power and regain control over rebel-held regions of Syria.

“Whichever way you look at it, it’s a plus for Assad,” de Kerckhove said – even if “it’s impossible, formally, for the Americans to acknowledge Assad is a de facto ally.”

And while the Islamic State’s brutal beheadings of journalists and aid workers has sparked worldwide horror, some of Obama’s key allies in the region are hardly strangers to this method of execution.

“We in the West have decided to continue to close our eyes” to Saudi Arabia’s actions, de Kerckhove said. “When somebody is stoned or whatever, we’re horrified and we quickly forget it. … ISIS provides them a means to get back into the game.”

Even Haider al-Abadi, the newly minted Iraqi Prime Minister whose unity government Obama has cited to legitimize the timing of U.S. strikes on the Islamic State, said this weekend he’d “issued the orders to stop the indiscriminate shelling on cities inhabited by civilians” – a disconcerting statement suggesting there had been “indiscriminate shelling” of civilians under government orders before.

“The real issue is, can the government of Iraq gain the confidence of Sunnis?” de Kerckhove said. “And there, that’s a big, big, big ‘If.'”

Canada: ‘We continue to stand with Egypt’

Canada’s stance is somewhat complex: On the one hand, Foreign Affairs is adamant Assad’s regime is “not an ally,” according to an emailed statement from department spokesman John Babcock.

“It is the instigator of this conflict and of the violent sectarianism that has taken root in Syria,” Babcock said.

“Canada condemns in the strongest terms the brutality of the Assad regime and the terrorist organizations ISIL and its like, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Hezbollah, who Assad either expressly invited to join the conflict or allowed to take a foothold in Syria to advance his war aims.”

But Canada’s part of Obama’s international coalition targeting the Islamic State – potentially to Assad’s benefit.

As for Sisi, Canada’s public statements have been markedly positive: It lauded an election international observers decried, congratulated Sisi on a job well done in mediating an Israel-Hamas ceasefire and didn’t issue any statement directly addressing the Human Rights Watch report on the Raba’a massacre.

“As we all know, difficult challenges face the Government of Egypt in leading its country toward a more democratic, inclusive, secure, stable and prosperous future, but such a future is in the interests of all Egyptian citizens,” Babcock wrote in response to Global News questions in this regard.

“We continue to stand with Egypt in its efforts to confront terrorism, including in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security personnel are confronting a dangerous insurgency.”

Tough talk aside, de Kerckhove bemoaned Canada’s lost standing when it comes to international diplomacy.

“In the great meetings of world leaders, Canada is pretty much absent. Or at least, it doesn’t bring much to the table compared to the days of Mulroney or Chretien. … Canada has left the multilateral world,” he said. “There’s no sense that Canada is exercising that kind of leadership.”

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