Commentary

Why Washington Turns a Blind Eye to Egypt’s Thugocracy

Chinese president Xi Jinping discarded term limits and is preparing to rule for life like an emperor of old. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is preparing to follow Xi’s example as his supporters propose similarly amending the constitution and allowing him to become a modern pharaoh.

Five years ago General el-Sisi staged a coup, arrested the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, killed hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators, and jailed tens of thousands of opponents, critics and demonstrators. Having suppressed all serious opposition, el-Sisi took over as president and in 2014 staged a faux election, winning more than 97 percent of the vote over minor opposition.

El-Sisi staged an electoral repeat in March. This time several would-be opponents, including with military backgrounds, sought to oppose him, but he arrested or intimidated them all. For instance, Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate, was detailed along with fifteen party members and placed on the official terrorism list. Sami Anan, el-Sisi’s predecessor as army chief of staff, was arrested, and a top member of his campaign, Hisham Geneina, el-Sisi’s former anti-corruption chief, was sentenced to five years in prison.

This process winnowed the opposition field to a self-professed supporter, who said he was “not here to challenge the president” (and was pushed into the race by el-Sisi’s minions). Of course, the Egyptian president denied any connection to the remarkable string of bad luck which afflicted his potential opponents. His spokesman said that “neither Sisi’s morals nor his dignity let him prevent any other person from running.”

El-Sisi abandoned the pretense of a free vote not because he might lose—his officials would be counting the votes, after all—but to prevent even a small split within the military and development of any political opposition. Unsurprisingly, el-Sisi again took an enviable 97 percent of the vote. However, despite the regime threatening fines, job loss, police raids, and more for those who failed to vote and promising benefits including bribes, financial prizes, trips, food, and community grants and projects for those who did, total turnout was just 41 percent, down six points from the previous poll. Seven percent of ballots cast were spoiled. A website republished a New York Times article on the government’s election machinations, only to be fined and closed.

Washington cannot make Egypt free, but it should stop enthusiastically embracing and subsidizing those who hold an entire country in bondage.

Thus have ended the hopes and dreams surrounding the 2011 revolution.

There was much to criticize about the brief presidency of Islamist Mohamed Morsi elected in 2012, but he was no tyrant. To the contrary, he failed to control the bureaucracy, police, or military. Antagonistic businessmen sought to create economic chaos. The police refused to protect his party’s headquarters from a mob. He was ousted after Saudi Arabia funded street protests and promised aid to el-Sisi if the latter seized control. The revolutionary regime that was supposed to liberate Egypt morphed into the dictatorship that it had replaced, just like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Freedom House rates Egypt as not free, near the bottom on both political rights and civil liberties. The group’s latest report explained: “Serious political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as both liberal and Islamist activists face criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Terrorism persists unabated in the Sinai Peninsula and has also struck the Egyptian mainland, despite the government’s use of aggressive and often abusive tactics to combat it.”

Egypt’s civil liberties rating dropped “due to the approval of a restrictive law on nongovernmental organizations and a crackdown on activity by labor unions that are not recognized by the government.” Only government-controlled unions were recognized by the government and last December a new law dissolved all independent ones. NGOs also “have faced mass closures as well as harassment in the form of office raids, arrests of members, lengthy legal cases, and restrictions on travel.” Unsurprisingly, the “media sector is dominated by progovernment outlets, as most critical or opposition-oriented outlets were shut down in the wake of the coup.”

Little is private or protected. Explained Freedom House: “The security services have reportedly upgraded their surveillance equipment and techniques in recent years so as to better monitor social media platforms and mobile phone applications. Pro-government media figures and state officials regularly call for national unity and suggest that only enemies of the state would criticize the authorities. These pressures have led to more self-censorship and guarded discussion among ordinary Egyptians.”

The political system is rigged. Minorities face discrimination that prevents them from even the limited political participation of the general population. But as the latest presidential vote demonstrated, politics is only for show. Freedom House noted that el-Sisi “has ruled in a style that entrenches military privilege and shields the armed forces from accountability for their actions.” At the same time, “corruption is pervasive at all levels of government.”

There is no system of justice. The government extended its control over the courts. Moreover, explained Freedom House: “A series of mass trials in recent years have resulted in harsh sentences, including life imprisonment or the death penalty, based on negligible evidence.” Additionally, thousands of civilians have been sent to military courts for conviction, er, “trial.”

Amnesty International’s 2017-2018 report is equally negative. Among the highlights, human-rights NGOs were silenced, freedom of assembly and expression was denied, arbitrary arrests and detentions were common, extrajudicial disappearances and executions were standard operating procedure, trials were unfair, freedom of labor and religion were denied, and much more.

Reported Amnesty International: “The authorities used torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance against hundreds of people, and dozens were extrajudicially executed with impunity. The crackdown on civil society escalated with NGO staff being subjected to additional interrogations, travel bans and asset freezes. Arbitrary arrests and detentions followed by grossly unfair trials of government critics, peaceful protesters, journalists and human-rights defenders were routine. Mass unfair trials continued before civilian and military courts, with dozen sentenced to death. Women continued to be subjected to sexual and gender-based violence and were discriminated against in law and practice. The authorities brought criminal charges for defamation of religion and ‘habitual debauchery’ on the basis of people’s real or perceived sexual orientation.”

Human Rights Watch titled its January report “Egypt: Untamed Repression?” Never mind el-Sisi’s protestations of fidelity to democracy and human rights. Reported Human Rights Watch: “Al-Sisi’s government during 2017 observed few boundaries on its untamed repression of all forms of dissent.” The regime “introduced a host of repressive laws, reinstated the abusive state of emergency, and sent thousands of civilians to military courts that, along with civilian courts, issued scores of death sentences in flawed trials.”

The list of abuses is long: intolerance toward dissent, “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces,” mass roundups, arbitrary detention, torture, property seizures, and use of military tribunals against civilians, stifling the independent sector, and “disappearing” critics, almost four hundred in the space of a year. In the latter case people are arrested and then simply vanish, sometimes later resurfacing in government custody.

Zubeida Ibrahim spoke to BBC about the disappearance of her daughter. Early in March she was arrested and her lawyer, Ezzat Ghonim, disappeared. Ghonim was Amnesty International’s North Africa campaigns director. AI also cited three democracy/opposition activists similarly kidnapped by the el-Sisi regime in February.

Last fall Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on the government’s use of torture: “Since July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s first freely elected president, torture has returned as the calling card of the security services, and the lack of punishment for its routine practice has helped define the authoritarianism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s administration.” The document included accounts from numerous detainees who had been tortured by Egyptian security forces.

Even the State Department, despite President Trump’s bromance with his Egyptian counterpart, painted a grim picture. According to the State Department’s human-rights report last year, which spanned fifty-nine pages, “the most significant human-rights problems were excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties.” Among the specifics: Use of preventive custody and military courts, unlawful killings, torture, “restrictions on freedoms of expression and the media, as well as on the freedoms of assembly and association,” disappearances, “harsh prison conditions,” politicized court verdicts, “restrictions on academic freedom” and civil society, corruption, infringement of religious liberty, and “impunity for security forces.”

The State Department released its latest iteration of the report in mid-April, which critics complained watered down some criticisms of some U.S. allies. However, the Egypt section, though three pages shorter, appeared to be no less negative. State cited pervasive “arbitrary arrest and detention,” usually in awful conditions. The report also pointed to “numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including incidents that occurred while making arrests or holding persons in custody, during disputes with civilians, or while dispersing demonstrations.”

El-Sisi surpassed Mubarak by destroying the independent sector. Last year the regime implemented legislation criminalizing the operations of NGOs focused on human rights and micromanaging the work of all others. Even mundane administrative decisions require regime approval. Among the groups killed by el-Sisi: the Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, which both exposed the government’s reliance on torture and helped those tortured by the state. I visited the center four years ago, which is when staffers told me that the abuses were worse than under Mubarak.

Egypt has become a prison state. Reported HRW in September 2016, “between Morsi’s overthrow and May 2014, Egyptian authorities arrested or charged at least 41,000 people, according to one documented count, and 26,000 more may have been arrested since the beginning of 2015, lawyers and human rights researchers say. The government itself has admitted to making nearly 34,000 arrests.” That was as of two years ago.

In February, author Mona Eltahawy compared el-Sisi to Vladimir Putin and cited more recent estimates by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information estimated: 2,332 death sentences, sixty thousand political prisoners, seventeen new prisons, 7,513 civilians tried by the military, five hundred Egyptians banned from international travel, fifty-four journalists imprisoned, and 465 internet sites blocked (which has since surpassed five hundred).

Cairo was ill-prepared for the flood of prisoners. New prisons could not be constructed fast enough and living conditions remain awful. In Tora Maximum Security Prison, wrote HRW: “Authorities have banned inmates from contacting their families or lawyers for months at a time, held them in degrading conditions without beds, mattresses, or basic hygienic items, humiliated, beaten, and confined them for weeks in crammed ‘discipline’ cells—treatment that probably amounted to torture in some cases—and interfered with their medical care in ways that may have contributed some of their deaths.”

El-Sisi justifies every arrest, abuse and suppression of basic liberties as necessary to fight terrorism, which, however, has expanded as his brutality has increased. Outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood decapitated the more moderate leadership, fractured the organization, and left some members believing that nonviolence no longer was an option. As ever more Egyptian families see loved ones and friends unjustly imprisoned and mistreated, resistance and instability are likely to grow.

Indeed, knowledgeable observers worry about the long-term consequences of repression. Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan in early April wrote that el-Sisi’s “outsize economic and political ambitions are at the same time breeding resentment within large segments of the general population and, some analysts say, inside Egypt’s highly influential military.” The armed forces once were beyond public suspicion. But now, noted George Mason University’s Abdallah Hendawy, “hundreds of journalists, activists, bloggers, and even some politicians, both in and outside the country, have become increasingly critical of the military overreach.” H. A. Hellyer of the Atlantic Council worried that “by closing the space for expressing dissent openly, the possibility is that something far more chaotic than 2011 becomes more likely.” Similarly, Philip Crowley, who served in the Obama State Department, warned that “the seeds of the revolution are budding in Egypt right now.”

Alas, the United States and other Western governments have gone soft on Egyptian repression because they value stability more than liberty. They assume that only obsequious support can preserve Egypt as an ally. However, Cairo is not going to war upon Israel, whether or not Washington subsidizes el-Sisi’s dictatorship. Interdicting traffic through the Suez Canal would be self-defeating for any Egyptian government. And the regime would retain significant incentive—access to spare parts and training for U.S.-supplied weapons, for instance—to maintain positive contacts with the West.

However, New York University’s Alon Ben-Meir dismissed the possibility of democracy succeeding in Egypt and reported that “Egyptian officials prefer that concerns over human rights violations be addressed behind the scenes in order to not embarrass and weaken el-Sisi’s position in the eyes of the public.” No doubt. From their perspective, the less said the better.

However, pious private complaints, of which there have been many, evidently have had no impact. El-Sisi is the primary architect of what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called a “pervasive climate of intimidation.” Egyptian officials reflexively dismiss all concerns as lies, misinformation, or “fake news”—even as the human-rights climate has rapidly deteriorated.

In March Raghavan reported that “over the past year, al-Sisi has intensified an assault on basic freedoms.” Hendawy noted how repression accelerated before the presidential vote, destroying the democratic façade within which “political parties, social movements, and political dissidents were all allowed to play a limited role within certain bounds” even under Mubarak. In March el-Sisi called criticism of the military and police treason. Before the election the government’s chief prosecutor, Nabil Sadek, threatened to punish journalists for any criticism of the regime which allegedly hurt the nation’s “reputation.” As the election approached he targeted foreign journalists, who he said were “forces of evil” for their negative stories.

America’s leverage is limited. Last year the United States held up nearly $300 million in economic and military assistance, but to no effect. Washington could stop the additional $1.3 billion going to the Egyptian military annually, but that would not change Cairo’s policy, since el-Sisi is receiving large-scale transfers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Still, by doing so Washington would stop underwriting regime repression.

However, the Trump administration prefers to embrace dictatorship. On election day U.S. charge d’affaires Thomas Goldberger sounded like he was employed by el-Sisi: “As Americans we are very impressed by the enthusiasm and patriotism of Egyptian voters.” Vice President Mike Pence visited Cairo and offered embarrassingly obsequious comments, opining that el-Sisi “said to me again that his dedication is to all of the people of Egypt.”

Ben-Meir argued for dropping human rights and focusing on economic development: “Every country that has contributed financial aid to Egypt, including the United States, EU, and Gulf states, should substantially increase their aid” to assist Cairo. He presumed the regime would use the money well, which represents the triumph of hope over experience. El-Sisi has pushed a cavalcade of dubious expensive “investments,” including a second capital, nuclear power plant, and greatly expanded “New Suez Canal.”

Worse, additional aid would strengthen Cairo’s repressive rule. Today no action is too small for the regime to punish: posting a cartoon of el-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears on Facebook earned one man a three-year prison term. A pop star recently was sentenced to six months in prison for calling the Nile River “dirty,” which was taken as an insult to the state—even though the river is, well, dirty, as I have seen from personal observation.

Foreign policy inevitably involves occasional tough moral compromises. However, the end of the Cold War has reduced pressure on Washington to ignore the cruel brutality of client regimes. In cases like Egypt, America is complicit in grotesque and widespread violations of human rights. That repression makes future violence more likely when political change inevitably occurs, and ensures that the United States will be targeted by those who suffered under what Vice President Pence lauded as a “strategic partnership” of “great importance to the American people.” Washington cannot make Egypt free, but it should stop enthusiastically embracing and subsidizing those who hold an entire country in bondage.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.