egypt

Egypt’s Military Regime Grows More Brutal

The Middle East has long been hostile to Christians and other religious minorities. Among those at risk are Egypt’s Copts.

During the reign of dictator Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. State Department called the status of Egyptian religious liberty “poor” and noted that Christians and Baha’is faced “personal and collective discrimination.” Attacks on Copts were common, and perpetrators rarely were prosecuted.

Mubarak’s overthrow led Copts to hope for a freer and safer Egypt. But under Mubarak’s successor, President Mohamed Morsi, violence against Copts increased. Morsi was not the only culprit. In one infamous case, the military–then headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi–shot down more than a score of Coptic protesters.

Two years ago, al-Sisi overthrew Morsi and eventually became president. Alas, the military used extreme brutality—killing hundreds of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo—to maintain control.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II publicly supported the coup. But the church remained as vulnerable as it was visible, and was targeted by angry Islamists. Dozens of churches were destroyed.

Washington Is Too Cozy with Certain Dictators

U.S. leaders routinely emphasize that America’s foreign policy is based on support for the expansion of freedom around the world.  But as I point out in a recent article in the National Interest Online, Washington’s behavior frequently does not match the idealistic rhetoric.  Too often, U.S. policymakers seem to favor even brutal and corrupt authoritarian allies over boisterous, unpredictable democratic regimes.

During the Cold War, U.S. administrations enthusiastically embraced “friendly” autocratic governments in such places as South Korea and the Philippines—even when there were viable democratic alternatives.  Because it was uncertain whether democratic governments would be as cooperative with U.S. foreign policy aims, officials preferred dealing with more compliant autocrats.  Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly misrepresented such allies to the American people as noble members of the “free world.”

The tendency was especially pronounced in the Middle East, and that cynical policy has persisted longer there than in other regions.  It began early, as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and restore the Shah to power as an unconstrained monarch.  The Shah became America’s chosen Persian Gulf gendarme for the next quarter century, despite the regime’s appalling human rights record and pervasive corruption.  Elsewhere in the region, Washington developed a cozy relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak that lasted three decades, even as he and his military cronies looted and brutalized that unhappy country. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems just as hypocritical as its predecessors when it comes to relations with Egypt and other Middle East countries.  U.S. leaders were reluctant to cut Mubarak loose even as pro-democracy demonstrations surged throughout Egypt in 2011.   In a PBS interview, Vice President Joe Biden even objected to describing Mubarak as a dictator and rejected calls for him to step down.

Americans Don’t Know How Good They Have It

CAIRO—“I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist who I met at the tiny Marriott near Cairo’s Tahir Square.  A student activist observed that he could be detained at any time. 

A veteran human rights activist calmly stated:  “Some of our groups will be closed.  Some of us will be imprisoned.  It is inevitable.”

Most foreigners travel to Egypt to play tourist.  I visited with a human rights delegation, reminding me yet again about how lucky Americans—and, indeed, most Westerners—are.

Most important are the basic characteristics of a free society.  The rule of law.  Civil liberties.  Criminal procedures.  Legal safeguards.  Democratic processes. 

Obviously, even nations which purport to have all of these often fall short.  However, few Americans or Europeans, or citizens of democratic Asian nations live in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, and torture. 

In Egypt the uncertainty began when arriving.  On both of my trips the government knew our delegation was coming.  Both times I was pulled aside. 

On the first trip an entry guard took my passport and I waited for an hour before officials returned it and waved me on.  The second time after far shorter delay security officials formally welcomed me—after asking for my phone number and hotel destination. 

Of course, the U.S. occasionally stops people from entering, but not typically because they want to assess America’s human rights record.  Even after leaving the arrivals area on my first trip I had to wait again while the videographer joining us unsuccessfully attempted to persuade officials to let him bring in his camera. 

Both visits were filled with interviews—relating all sorts of harrowing stories.  Most every society has injustice and errors are sadly common in U.S. jurisprudence.  However, most Americans don’t expect a visit to a friend to turn into a stint in prison.

In Egypt for reasons of political repression and personal revenge people face arbitrary arrest, perpetual detention, fraudulent trials, and horrific imprisonment.  Some of the accounts we heard could be exaggerated or even false, but reports from people in many walks of life and across the political spectrum suggested that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Coping with the Legacy of Arab Socialism

Countries of the Arab Spring suffer from many economic, social, and political ills. At their center lies the unfortunate legacy of Arab Socialism, which established itself in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. One of its features, besides the ideology of Pan-Arabism and international ‘non-alignment,’ was an emphasis on government ownership and industrial planning.

Can Egypt Cure Its Subsidy Addiction?

Egypt’s government spends more on subsidies of consumer products—most prominently energy and food—than on health and education combined. Subsidies distort markets, lead to waste, and are largely ineffective in helping Egypt’s poor. Therefore, it should be heartening to see the government tackling the problem, as part of its effort to bring down the country’s fiscal deficit.

Egypt’s Subsidy Nightmare

If you think that Western welfare states are in a pickle, imagine what they would look like if, instead of transferring money, governments tried to help people by giving all of them free or cheap stuff. One does not need to be an economist to see the inefficiency of in-kind transfers, but many countries use redistribution of stuff – typically in the form of commodity subsidies – as the main tool of redistribution and social assistance.

In Egypt, the government subsidizes the prices of fuels and certain food products at artificially low levels. Obviously, the wealthy – who can afford to consume more of the subsidized commodities – are the largest beneficiaries of the subsidy system. In urban areas of Egypt, for example, the top quintile of the income distribution receives eight times as much in energy subsidies as the bottom quintile.

As I argue in a new Cato Policy Analysis published today, commodity subsidies are behind Egypt’s fiscal meltdown – the country is currently running a deficit of 15 percent of GDP, while being kept afloat only by the inflow of funds from the Gulf countries. To avert a looming fiscal catastrophe, Egyptian policymakers need to act now. The paper, which I also summarize here, provides a list of recommendations about how the reform should be approached:

Nothing New on the Egyptian Front?

Four months after the military takeover in Egypt, the country’s economy is still a train wreck. With growth well below government forecasts, the budget deficit in 2013/2014 may get to 15 percent of GDP, bringing Egypt into truly dangerous territory, unless the inflow of aid from the Gulf countries continues indefinitely. And instead of reforms, there are discussions of a new stimulus plan, worth $3.6 billion.

Nor are there many reasons for optimism in the political arena. Mohamed Morsi appeared in court on Monday, charged with inciting violence and murder. If convicted, he can face the death penalty. Unsurprisingly, the trial, alongside with the ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, has fostered further violent protests in Cairo.

However, if instead of following the news, one listened to U.S. officials, one could not avoid the impression that everything is going swimmingly. Today’s Washington Post has a brilliant editorial describing the state of denial in the administration:

Not surprisingly, a Freedom House report released Monday concludes that “there has been virtually no substantive progress toward democracy … since the July 3 coup,” despite the military regime’s supposed “road map.” But that’s not how Secretary of State John F. Kerry sees it. “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” he pronounced during a quick trip to Cairo on Sunday. A liberal constitution and elections? “All of that is, in fact, moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for.”

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