Human Rights and US Military Aid: What’s next for Egypt

By Geoffrey Mock, Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA

Six years out from the memories of the Egyptian people filling Tahir Square for their demands for human and political rights, a celebration that inspired people around the world, the best that can be said about the situation in Egypt is it didn’t have to turn out this way.

Instead of fulfilling the aspirations of the tens of thousands of Egyptians, civil society now lies in ruins. Egyptian legislation has closed most independent media and human rights and other non-governmental organizations. To enforce these acts, police and security forces have free rein to conduct extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances.

Torture is systematic, and police have arrested an estimated 40,000 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience. Most are held in prolonged detention without trial or convicted after unfair trials.

Against a history of US silence or muted protests on these abuses, it was surprising to learn that the Department of State cut nearly $100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt and delayed release of another $290 million in aid.

In announcing the reduction of aid, a State Department spokesman specifically pointed to the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, specifically citing the new NGO law and a crackdown on civil society activists in Egypt.

That news was followed by a show of activity by the US Senate, where the appropriations committee, also citing Egypt’s dismal human rights record, voted to strip $300 million of military aid to the country. The panel also cut an additional $37 million of economic aid.

The bill now goes to the full Senate and must also be approved by the House.

This is encouraging news, but it also points to how much more the United States must do to get Egypt back on track, and how much resistance there will be along the way.

And the time has to be now. In the past three months, the pace of the human rights crackdown in Egypt has, if anything, accelerated. In the aftermath of a June meeting in Saudi Arabia between President Trump and Egyptian President Sisi, Egypt ramped up digital censorship by blocking key international media websites — including the web platform for this very blog — and cutting off access to many of the few remaining independent news sites.

These closures affect more than Egyptians. Amnesty International, other international human rights organizations and even the international media, rely on these associations and activists to tell the world about what is going on inside Egypt. That is what President Sisi wants to stop.

That’s important because the crackdown has eliminated activists’ ability to press for change internally. Too many Egyptian activists are saying there is no space for them to act. Their channels of reaching the public are all shut down. The doors of their organizations are shut. Their leaders are in jail or facing legal action. Too many of their friends and colleagues are dead.

Real change isn’t going to happen if the US government continues to support and aid human rights.

This means last week’s action, as positive as it is, has to be followed up. We need a consistent message that promoting human rights is essential to the stability of the Egyptian society and to the sustaining of the Egyptian-US relationship. We need that statement to be translated into a lasting policy that permeates through the entire relationship with Egypt and uses a single standard that applies to all Egyptian activists. In other words, the US government can’t pick and choose among the activists it likes, but must be bold in supporting Muslim Brothers or other non-Western friendly activists when they too face human rights abuses.

A next step would be stronger, public and private support for Egyptian human rights defenders, including Amnesty International Write4Rights cases Shawkan and Hanan Badr el-Din, women’s rights activists such as Azza Soliman, and the defendants in the infamous Case 173 targeting leaders of Egyptian human rights organizations.

These cases all have upcoming court dates. It may be that we’ll know very soon whether these new punitive measures by the US government represent something fundamental.