Both countries took steps aimed at rectifying Egypt’s poor human rights record, but rights advocates found them to be short of the mark.
Cairo — Within days of each other, the United States and Egypt announced moves this week that, for the first time in years, would put human rights on the agenda in Egypt, a country that has been trying to jail activists, target journalists, and more. and has become notorious for being crushed. free speech.
On Tuesday, the State Department informed Congress that it was withholding $130 million in military aid until Egypt meets specific human rights standards. Biden administration officials said it was the first time a secretary of state had refused to issue a formal national security waiver to provide aid.
Three days ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a new human rights strategy, explicitly planning to protect human rights for the first time in his seven years in power in response to international pressure.
While Biden’s move was incremental – blocking only $130 million of the $1.3 billion in aid the United States gives to Egypt each year – and any tangible impact of Mr. al-Sisi’s announcement remains to be seen. Egypt’s rights advocates said the moves signaled progress after years of unchecked abuse by government officials that closed thousands of prisons, blocked hundreds of independent and opposition media websites, and brought charges of extrajudicial killings by Egyptian security forces.
“Two or three years ago, the state rejected the notion of human rights as complete nonsense,” said Egyptian human rights lawyer Negd el-Borai, who advised the government in formulating a national human rights strategy. “Of course, no country is going to reshape its policy for fear of losing $100 or $300 million, but in the end Egypt doesn’t want to be a rogue state and any human rights reforms can help.”
The government’s rights strategy, outlined in the 78-page document, calls for legal reforms to protect civil and political rights and over the next five years, with the aim of creating a sense of human rights awareness and commitment within state institutions. For training of employees. years.
“2022 is the year of civil society,” Mr al-Sisi said in a televised address on Saturday, emphasizing the need to protect civil rights and promote participation in political and public life.
Attended by senior state officials and other pro-government politicians, the launch was described by state media as a breakthrough towards creating “a new republic”.
“This is new,” said Essam Shiha, the head of the pro-government Egyptian human rights organization. “This is the first clear indication of what I envision to be an opening for parties, syndicates and civil society groups since the CC came to power.”
However, even though the move was celebrated by some as a sign of change, thousands of political prisoners still remain inside Egyptian prisons, mostly forgotten.
Just one day after the Human Rights Strategy was launched, Patrick Zaki, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was accused of spreading false news for publishing an article accusing Egypt of discriminating against the Christian minority. He had already spent 19 months in pre-trial detention.
“We are a very useful example of the disconnect between document and living reality in this country,” Hosam Bahgat, the group’s director, said in an interview. Mr Bhagat is also facing trial in his case for a tweet he posted last year about fraud in the 2020 Egyptian elections, and could face several years in prison.
Egyptian rights advocates said the strategy would have to be backed by action.
“It’s cosmetic,” said Aza Soliman, a prominent women’s rights activist in Cairo. “We need proof. Proof of this would be to respect the Constitution, release prisoners, and allow civil society groups to function freely.
The actions of the Biden administration were also seen by critics as more symbolic than real.
The State Department said the United States is withdrawing $130 million of a $300 million aid package for terrorism, border security and non-proliferation programs.
“Our bilateral relationship with Egypt will be strengthened, and America’s interests will be better served through continued American engagement to advance our national security interests, including addressing our human rights concerns,” the department said.
But the gesture was disappointing to rights groups who were expecting more.
“No More Blank Checks for Trump’s ‘Favorite Dictator’,” Was Mr Biden tweeted During his presidential campaign, President Donald J. Trump attacked. Mr Trump also halted military aid to Egypt in 2017, but released it the following year.
Biden administration after taking office issued a statement Promises to “put human rights at the center of US foreign policy”.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, more than a dozen people from Egypt and international rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized Biden for having missed his promise.
“This administration has repeatedly stated that it is placing human rights at the center of its foreign policy, and in particular its relationship with Egypt,” the statement said. “However, the decision taken today is a complete betrayal of these commitments.”
When asked about the modest amount withheld by the administration, a State Department official said $130 million was the maximum that could be withheld, although a spending bill passed by Congress said up to $300 million could be withheld. can.
The administration was also particularly vague about what it was asking Egypt to do. The State Department said the funds would be released “if Egypt takes specific actions related to human rights,” but did not specify what those actions were.
A spokesman for Ned Price said, “What I can say is that we have continued to raise our concerns, both publicly and privately, about the human rights situation in Egypt at a high level, including freedom of expression, political association and and press freedom is included.” reporters in Washington on Wednesday. “We have spoken very frankly, privately, with the Egyptians on all these fronts.”
Analysts said Mr Biden was trying to walk a fine line between making a point about human rights and supporting Egypt’s important role in providing stability in the Middle East.
“Biden is keen to project a different image under Trump, who publicly praised dictators,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a professor of political science at American University in Cairo. “At the same time, Biden remains interested in the stability of Egypt because of the important role it plays in reducing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and fighting terrorism.”
write in foreign policyCharles Dunne, a former US diplomat who served in Egypt, said: “Cairo’s role in brokering Middle East peace agreements, its cooperation in fighting terrorism, and American warships crossing the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace and It has always had a preferential treatment for military aircraft. There is no concern about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government and its rampant human rights abuses. It was Egypt’s role in ‘regional stability’ that mattered.
Previous administrations have used national security exemptions to allow the government to provide military aid despite Egypt’s record of abuse.
An annual State Department report on Egypt’s human rights records released in March cited several examples of abuse by government security forces, including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture, arbitrary detention and inhumane prison conditions. It also found that free and political speech was disrupted by restricting media, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people were targeted with violence.
Egypt has consistently been one of the world’s top jailers of journalists since Mr al-Sisi was elected president in 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, coming in third last year behind only China and Turkey.
Human Rights Watch Recently charged Egypt For carrying out “probable extrajudicial killings” of at least 14 people between 2015 and 2020. the group previously documented Another 20 such killings coincided with Egypt’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sinai, where the military is battling Islamist militants.
It is the breadth of these violations, and how deeply they are woven into government policies, that make Egyptian rights activists skeptical of the government’s new strategy.
“This is not a country that needs some legal and institutional reforms and human rights training material,” Mr Bhagat said. “This is a country mired in a deep human rights crisis that can only be reversed through recognition of the depth of this crisis and a decision to shift course.”
Mona El-Naggar reported from Cairo and Lara Jakes from Washington. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.