Washington Should Stop Praising Military Tyranny in Egypt

CAIRO—Egypt’s capital is crowded, busy, confused, and messy.  Security isn’t obvious, until you get close to a sensitive site, such as the Interior Ministry. 

The military has taken firm control, elevating its leader, Abdel Fata al-Sisi, to the presidency.  The army permitted dictator Hosni al-Mubarak’s ouster by street protests in 2011 because he planned to turn military rule into a family dynasty.

If ousted president Mohamed al-Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood been defeated in a future election, they would have been discredited peacefully.  However, the coup turned the movement’s members into angry victims.  In Cairo they took over Rab’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares, just as the anti-Mubarak and anti-Morsi crowds had done in Tahir Square. 

The military government responded with a campaign of premeditated murder.

In a new report Human Rights Watch detailed the junta’s crimes.  From the beginning the military used deadly force with no concern for casualties.  In fact, the army began using live ammunition against protestors just two days after the coup. 

The most horrific episode occurred when the regime deployed soldiers, APCs, bulldozers, police, and snipers to destroy a vast tent village in Rab’a Square.  Explained HRW:  “security forces used lethal force indiscriminately, with snipers and gunmen inside and alongside APCs firing their weaponry on large crowds of protestors.  Dozens of witnesses also said they saw snipers fire from helicopters over Rab’a Square.” 

In roughly 12 hours HRW figured that at least 817 and likely more than 1000 people were slaughtered.  Since then, said HRW:  “Security forces have continued to use excessive lethal force against demonstrators.” 

Moreover, the regime moved against liberals and other critics, including youthful leaders of the revolution against Mubarak.  Bahey al-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, argued that military control “is more horrible than the old regime.” 

In fact, by its own count the government has arrested 22,000 people, many of whom have been tortured.  When meeting a visiting delegation organized by the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights of which I was part, Ayaalaa Hosni, spokeswoman for a women’s anti-coup group, complained that you can’t demonstrate without a warrant but if you “go to ask for a warrant you get arrested.”

Outside assessments are uniformly negative.  David Kramer, president of the group Freedom House, declared in June:  “the human rights situation has worsened compared to what it was at any point under Hosni Mubarak.”   His organization reported that Egypt had gone from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” after the coup, with significant deterioration across the board. 

In a separate study Freedom House rated Egypt’s media “not free.”  An organizer for press freedom told our delegation that ten journalists had been killed.  Scores had been shot and injured, more than 100 had been assaulted, and scores more had been arrested.  Another reporter said simply:  “Journalism has become a crime.”

Yet repression is unlikely to deliver stability.  Terrorism may be seen by more than jihadists as the only way to challenge a regime which bars peaceful dissent.  Mubarak’s jails helped turn Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri into al-Qaeda’s leader. 

There isn’t much the U.S. can do to change Cairo.  But the Obama administration could stop intervening constantly and maladroitly.  In fact, Washington’s influence is extremely limited.

As I wrote in Forbes online:  “The U.S. should work with Cairo on issues of shared interest but otherwise maintain substantial distance.  In particular, the administration should stop using foreign aid to bribe Egypt’s generals.  They don’t have to be paid to keep the peace and shouldn’t be paid for anything else.”

Egypt appears likely to end up without liberty or stability.  Instead of pretending to be in control, Washington should step back from a crisis which it cannot resolve.