by Rana Allam
The UK Foreign Office recently issued an advisory warning British holidaymakers visiting Egypt to avoid spreading “strongly negative opinions” about the Egyptian government and security forces and that “derogatory comments on social media” have led to prison. Meanwhile, the United States is releasing $195 million in military aid to Egypt that was previously withheld over human rights concerns.
Last year, the US had decided to withhold the military aid until it saw improvements in Egypt’s performance on human rights and democracy. On the one hand, the decision was the Trump administration’s response to Egypt’s ties to North Korea. On the other hand, the administration had been blindsided by the passage of Egypt’s infamous NGO law that restricts work on democracy development or rights. As a U.S. official said, “We have serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt.”
Have these concerns been alleviated over the past year? Or has the Egyptian government’s PR machine garnered results?
Human Rights and the “War on Terror”
Since the 2017 State Department memo to Congress about Egypt, nothing has changed in the country except maybe more of the same. The memo highlighted human rights violations, including the crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly, the lack of due process, unlawful detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings, violation of the rights of minorities, as well as intimidation of possible candidates of the 2018 presidential election. All these abuses continue to take place in Egypt. Just last week, 75 people were sentenced to death in a mass trial of 700 people that lacked the minimum requirements for a due legal process. The crackdown reaches far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to include even the most moderate of critics. In mid-July 2018, a new law was passed stipulating that the government would treat social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook as media outlets, which makes them subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.
In a Reuters commentary, Bruce Clingan, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa, says that the decision to restore the aid to Egypt was “a step in the right direction,” citing the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) insurgency in Sinai. Clingan fails to mention, however, the inadequacy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el=Sisi’s policies to combat IS in Sinai and the rest of Egypt. Forcibly displacing thousand of villagers from their homes in North Sinai and bombing entire towns (using US made cluster bombs) is hardly an effective counterterrorism measure. If anything, these moves increase the ranks and numbers of terrorists fighting the state.
Clingan also speaks of the importance of joint military exercises but seems to forget that Egypt had prevented U.S. officials from carrying out standard end-use monitoring checks to ensure that its weaponry is used for its intended purposes.
For five years, Sisi has relied on harsh military tactics, collective punishment, torture, unlawful arrests and extrajudicial killings to “fight terrorists,” yet there has been no real change on the ground since he took office. He has also failed to develop any programs to prevent the rise of violent extremism or any comprehensive strategies for the long-term eradication of terrorism. Instead, he shut down every peaceful channel to voice grievances, even those civil society organizations working to treat and rehabilitate victims of torture. His approach is not only not working, but it is counterproductive to future stability. With Egypt’s population at a 100 million people, this can create a real problem for the region, Europe, the US, and its ally Israel. Yet the US sees fit to arm Sisi with more weaponry.
The PR Machine
Last week in Ottawa, I met a man working in conflict resolution who is quite knowledgeable about Middle East politics. He told me that he attended a conference in Egypt where “opposition parties” were criticizing the government performance in front of President Sisi, which suggested to him that there was a fair amount of freedom of speech in the country. I was reminded of the $1.2-million-a-year deal between the Egyptian General Intelligence Services (GIS) and the New York-based public relations firm Weber Shandwick, a deal that has obviously paid off well to both parties.
The Egyptian regime has been mindlessly investing in its image, locally and abroad. To create an image of democratic rule, the GIS has invested time, money, and effort in creating political parties to form a parliament loyal to Sisi and stopping any “unacceptable” people from running in the parliamentary election. My friend saw those mock opposition figures at the conference, voicing “criticism” of the government.
The Egyptian government has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars to take control of the country’s media. On top of detaining and imprisoning dozens of journalists and bloggers, shutting down news outlets, and blocking over 500 independent media and human-rights websites, the GIS has been acquiring media outlets, even pro-government ones. Local Egyptian media can only toe the government line and act as mouthpieces for Sisi, while many international reporters are either deported or not given permission to enter the country.
Between the GIS controlling what information goes out to the world, the military controlling the economy from baby milk production to roads and water projects, and the police detaining opposition members, the 100 million Egyptians have no room to breathe. This rule is exceptionally short-sighted, and, interestingly, the West is playing along. This type of stability can never last for it conceals enormous tumult that it will eventually defy containment.
In 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his diplomats that “promoting our values is an obstacle to advancing our other interests.” Although his tenure was short, Tillerson’s ideas are the core of the Trump administration’s ethos. But, is it in US national security interest that violent extremism spreads in the Middle East? Are more wars, refugees, and civil conflicts in the US national interest? The US is already losing its moral authority and leadership status. How much more should it lose before it realizes that supporting military dictatorships is very dangerous?