Egypt: It is well past time for lectures on human rights

by Geoffrey Mock, Middle East Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA

Egyptian activists have had a rough three years since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected, but they must have known it was going to get worse after President Donald Trump promised Sisi that he “wouldn’t lecture” him on human rights.

Just look at what has happened in Egypt lately:

  • Khaled Ali, a potential presidential opponent, was arrested on charges of “violating public morals,” apparently for his criticism of Sisi, and now faces trial, jail time and an automatic disqualification from the 2018 presidential race.
  • Other political opponents were swept up in an accelerated crackdown, and at least 36 people were arrested from five different opposition parties and political youth groups.
  • Several prominent news websites noted for criticism of the Sisi government were shutdown.
  • Sisi signed into law harsh new restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which will now give the government the power to control NGOs and imposes harsh punishments and fines for any violation. Amnesty International considers this legislation to be a “catastrophic blow” to the once vibrant Egyptian civil society.

In some ways this is a continuation of past US-Egyptian relations. Through three decades of the Mubarak government muzzling civil society, US government policy had been a regular source of frustration to Egyptian activists. On one hand, US diplomats regularly raised human rights issues with Egyptian officials, and the department’s annual report on human rights was generally damning about torture, unfair trials and oppression of human rights defenders.

However, the messaging was never consistent, and tellingly, it never seemed to interfere with US military assistance and training for the Egyptian military. The question always was did the messaging on human rights fail because the US has less influence than it appears or because it’s not trying hard enough?

But this week was different. Through all their frustrations, Egyptian activists always knew the US policymakers had an affinity for activists’ desire to create a political system where they could have a say in their own future.

Now the new message is free speech, freedom of association and an independent judiciary and media are all things that get in the way of Sisi’s vision for Egypt. In the name of national security, Sisi’s Egypt is one where criticism is conflated with terrorism, where independent contributions to the public good are treated with suspicion. And he has President Trump’s approval.

There’s no way to spin this positively for Egypt. Amnesty International has already documented the thousands of young, educated Egyptians — the vanguard of the Tahrir Square uprising — who instead of leading the country into a more energetic society, now languish in jail.

Representative of this “Generation Jail,” is Shawkan, the professional name of a young, talented photojournalist whose photos of security officials attacking peaceful protesters has landed him in jail without a hearing for more than three years.

It means the Egyptian judiciary, which even during the darkest days of the Mubarak regime gave space for activists, will look the other way as the government hauls civilians before military courts that deny them basic legal rights.

It means that civil society organizations that filled essential gaps, such as the care for victims of torture and domestic abuse, will remain shut.

And, despite Sisi’s claims that his way is the path toward fighting armed groups in Egypt, it’s likely that the annihilation of civil society only will lead to more extremist rhetoric and more violence. The rising number of attacks in the Sinai region offer a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The US once supported many of the groups at risk of being shut down under the new NGO law. We saw them as the future of Egypt, as the pathway to giving the most populous country in the region a society based on respect for human rights.

In short, President Trump was right about one thing: It is long past time for US officials to deliver lectures. What is needed is for US policy to finally and belatedly match the past rhetoric on human rights. The place to start is a message to President Sisi that he must stop treating civil society activities, political speech and human rights work as criminal acts.

Amnesty International has a global campaign to support human rights defenders like Shawkan and Khaled Ali. Learn more and take action here.

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