By Rana Allam and Sanam Naraghi Anderlini for InDepthNews.
On July 4 as Americans celebrated independence from a King that “obstructed the Administration of Justice…sent hither swarms of Officers to harass people… kept among [the people], in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of legislatures…and render[ed] the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power”, Egyptians commemorated the rise of just such a king in their midst in 2013, and they wonder why the U.S. continues to support such a repressive ruler in Egypt today, when the same was intolerable for Americans 200 years ago.
With news of daily bombings and crises across the Middle East, it is no surprise that Egypt is absent from the news headlines, but the events that have been unfolding there since 2013 are warning signs of a much greater looming crisis, if attention isn’t paid soon.
The story so far: In 2011 Egyptians took to the streets to protest the corrupt and defunct rule of U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak. His ouster led to elections, which brought Mohammad Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to the fore. Morsi was not the most popular candidate but in the run-off elections against a Mubarak proxy, the public opted for the devil they didn’t know, and hoped for the best.
Once ensconced in the Presidential palace, Morsi’s own autocratic tendencies came to light. So once again the public took to the streets, this time on June 30, 2013 with a promise from the military that they would stand aside.
But on July 3, the eve of the U.S.’s 2013 Independence day celebrations, General Sisi, then senior commander of the Egyptian army, announced the ouster of the unpopular but elected Morsi. His men took Morsi to an unknown detention facility, rounded up his allies and put them in prisons, suspended the constitution, and a month later killed more than 900 Morsi supporters in a four-hour operation. Then the regime moved to crackdown on democracy advocates, detaining, torturing and killing its opponents.
Where does the U.S. fit into this picture? Aside from decades of bankrolling the Egyptian military and turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses during the Mubarak era, the U.S. continued its military aid to the regime, which was used to purchase tanks, F-16s, Apache Helicopters and police equipment to a tune of $6.5 billion since 2011. The current regime is now using many of these weapons against the Egyptian people.
Since 2013, despite the endless reports of human rights violations, crackdowns against even the mildest of civil society organizations, media and journalists, and anyone who dares to utter a word of dissent, the U.S. has continued to be a stalwart supporter of the Sisi regime.
Egypt has seen some dark days, but nothing quite like now. The government has jailed over 40,000 people in two years. It issues mass death sentences, conducts mass trials, commits extra judicial killings, uses torture as a common method of interrogation, forcibly disappears hundreds of people, evicts thousands from their homes and demolishes their towns.
It is a government that shuts down centers helping rehabilitate and heal victims of torture, bans prominent human rights lawyers and NGO leaders from travel, shuts down civil society organizations and puts their workers behind bars. But it retains support from the U.S., which annually celebrates its own independence from the yoke of just such a government.
That’s not all. Despite the extensive military aid it provides, the U.S. is not even able to consistently conduct legally required reviews of the Egyptian forces that it supplies and trains. An April 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the State Department did not complete all required checks and at some incidents, Egypt did not respond to the “repeated requests for information”.
It gets worse. This February, the U.S. administration requested to roll back human rights conditions on Egypt military aid. Instead of invoking the Leahy law, which strengthens human rights protection, the administration’s response has been to turn two blind eyes to the grave violations being committed by its strategic ally against its own people.
In defending the request, Secretary of State John Kerry said “there are disturbing arrests, there are disturbing sentences”, but pointed to Egypt’s strategic importance to the U.S., including in the fight against extremism, and the competition among global players for influence in Cairo. This is not a move from idealism to realpolitik, it is cynicpolitik. But it is as dangerous and misguided as it is shortsighted.
Secretary Kerry and his advisors may think that they hold sway in Cairo because of the aid they provide. But these days, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the bigger bankrollers of Sisi, and their $20billion and counting does not come with human rights strings attached. What Kerry and co. are missing is that the U.S. still holds moral power, something that the Gulf States will never possess. But that power means nothing if the U.S. is willing to lower its ethical standards to compete in the market with the Gulf States.
This current trajectory can only lead to tragedy. President Obama once said: “When people are oppressed and human rights are denied — when dissent is silenced — it feeds violent extremism.” He is correct. Many in Egypt are concerned that the stifling of dissent and increased repression is creating more radicals than the government claims to neutralize. There may be some Uncomfortable Truths that the U.S. administration needs to acknowledge if it is to remain safe and free.
But there is an alternative, and it is right here in America. For an Egyptian who has tasted the tear gas and witnessed the violence of our American trained security personnel during our protests, it was a revelation to experience actual American security personnel in the midst of a protest on Capitol Hill in June one evening.
Some 200 people were protesting against the lax gun laws in the U.S. They were angry and critical of the governing powers, shouting slogans within earshot of the security men. But the armed policemen did nothing to prevent the protests. They watched as men and women with their kids, strollers and dogs exercised their right of expression and shared pizza. It was literally like a walk in the park.
In Egypt, this would be impossible. There tear gas and gun pellets would have fallen on our heads, most of us would have been detained and many injured in the process…and it would be a relief if no one was shot dead by the police.
We have huge problems in our country and we can neither blame the U.S. nor expect the U.S. to solve everything. Egypt can and will solve its own problems. But in this week, as the Independence Day celebrations subside and the magic of summer takes hold; we ask two things of the United States.
Treat us as you treat your own. In Egypt train and expect U.S.-trained security personnel to be unified and committed in their service to the people, not as a force against it. Use your moral authority: read the Declaration of Independence and re-align yourself with the Egyptian people, not the king that oppresses them.