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Egypt Murders Its Citizens With Little Complaint From Washington

A celebrated ancient empire, Egypt was later ruled by other empires old and
new. In 1952 the country went from monarchy to military rule. Until the 2011
Arab Spring explosion, which topped the Mubarak dictatorship, the armed forces
kept control through military men turned civilian politicians. Two years later
Egypt returned to military tyranny.

In 1972 President Mohammed Anwar al-Sadat flipped the country from Soviet client
to American friend and soon made peace with Israel. Washington ignored his domestic
repression and rewarded him with generous aid payments. The cash continued to
flow to Sadat’s successor, air chief marshal turned President Muhammad Hosni
al-Sayed Mubarak. He jailed opponents ranging from Islamic extremists to liberal
democrats, with little more than formalistic criticisms from Washington.

Mubarak eventually attempted to turn a military dictatorship into a family
business, preparing his son as heir. When popular protests broke out in 2011,
the generals conveniently decided that they could no longer oppose the people,
forcing his resignation. An election was held the following year, inconveniently
placing Mohamed Morsi Eissa al-Ayyat, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in

Although no dictator – he did not control the military, police, or government
bureaucracy, which collectively thwarted his policies – he lost public support
by failing to form a broad administration open to all. Moreover, his election
was viewed as a dire threat by the leading Persian Gulf dictatorships, Saudi
Arabia and United Arab Emirates. The two absolute monarchies financed a coup
by former general and defense minister Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi
in 2013.

The Obama administration refused to call his coup a coup even though he arrested
the president, ruling party members, and journalists, suspended the constitution,
and crushed popular demonstrations. Proving to be as ruthless as Deng Xiaoping
in suppressing the Tiananmen Square and related protests in 1989, al-Sisi killed
hundreds of protesters
staging peaceful sit-ins in Cairo’s al-Nahda and
Rabaa al-Adawiya Squares. Also targeted by military snipers were
journalists recording
the murderous crackdown.

of the ruthless operation is harrowing: “Human Rights Watch
researchers documented the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in and found that
security forces opened fire on protesters using live ammunition, with hundreds
killed by bullets to their heads, necks, and chests. Human Rights Watch also
found that security forces used lethal force indiscriminately, with snipers
and gunmen inside and alongside APCs firing their weaponry on large crowds of
protesters. Dozens of witnesses also said they saw snipers fire from helicopters
over Rabaa Square.”

President Barack Obama withheld some aid funds out of embarrassment over the
slaughter, but President Donald Trump, who
unashamedly called Sisi
“my favorite dictator,” restored the money.
Al-Sisi turned out to be much worse than Mubarak – imposing mass death sentences,
jailing tens of thousands, arresting candidates opposing him in elections he
called, and closing NGOs that provided some oversight to government abuses.
In 2014 I visited Egypt with a lawyers’ delegation and we met with courageous
activists at
the Al-Nadeem Torture Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and
. Established during Mubarak’s repressive reign, it filed suit against
the government and helped victims. Three years later al-Sisi shuttered the organization,
and most other private groups that attempted to monitor his manifold crimes.

Al-Sisi’s prison state is rated “Not Free” by the
group Freedom House
, with just 18 points out of a possible 100 for civil
and political liberty. Cairo subsists near the global bottom along with Iran,
Cuba, Russia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam, and several African
nations. Charles
Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat stationed in Egypt, warned
: “Since 2013,
Egypt has experienced nothing short of a slide toward totalitarianism,
notable among authoritarian states but unique among close US allies.” 

This phenomenon has been noted by others. Observed
Freedom House
: “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who first took power
in a 2013 coup, has governed Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
Meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as expressions of
dissent can draw criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Civil liberties, including
press freedom and freedom of assembly, are tightly restricted. Security forces
engage in human rights abuses with impunity. Discrimination against women, LGBT+
people, and other groups remain serious problems, as does a high rate of domestic

Even the
State Department acknowledged
the pervasive human rights violations of its
well-subsidized client: “Significant human rights issues included: unlawful
or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or
its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture and cases of
cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh
and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners
or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside
the country; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions
on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions
of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel
laws, which were not enforced; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful
assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing
civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence
targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons and use
of the law to arrest and prosecute arbitrarily such persons; and forced or compulsory
child labor, including its worst forms.”

Sadly, the abuses never end. In
its latest annual report
on Egypt, HRW observed: “Egyptians in 2020
continued to live under the harsh authoritarian grip of President Abdel Fattah
al-Sisi’s government. Tens of thousands of government critics, including journalists
and human rights defenders, remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges,
many in lengthy pretrial detention. Authorities frequently used terrorism charges
against peaceful activists and harassed and detained relatives of dissidents
abroad. Authorities used vague ‘morality’ charges to prosecute female social
media influencers for posts of themselves, as well as gang-rape witnesses following
reporting of sexual assault cases online. Media close to the government smeared
rape witnesses by publishing private photos and videos online without their

That’s not all, however. The regime “disappears” people and arrests
their relatives in North Korea-style punishment practices. Critics are held
in pretrial detention for years. Activists have been detained for organizing
to contest supposedly free elections. Prisoners are killed, or allowed to die,
through inadequate medical care. Moreover, added HRW: “Authorities continued
to silence journalists, bloggers, and critics on social media amid escalating
use of the repressive 2018 cybercrimes law and have blocked hundreds of news
and human rights websites without judicial authorization since 2017.”

Yet none of these tactics, though terribly oppressive, break new ground internationally.
However, unique appears to be Cairo’s odious practice of blaming victims for
their own murders. The al-Sisi regime apparently is executing prisoners, then
that the deaths
occurred during shootouts with security forces.

: “the Interior Ministry announced the deaths of at least 755 people
in 143 alleged shootouts between January 2015 and December 2020, with only one
suspect arrested. The ministry statements identified only 141 of those killed
and used copy-paste language, providing very little detail. Almost all the statements
claimed that the alleged militants opened fire first, compelling security forces
to return fire. The authorities alleged that all those killed were sought for
‘terrorism’ and that most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In fact, government even lies about foreign prisoners. In 2016 the regime
claimed that an Italian student studying independent labor unions, disappeared
by security forces, was killed in a car accident, even though his body
showed evidence of torture
, including burns. Next the government insisted
that he was murdered by a gang, all of whose members were conveniently killed
in a shootout
with security forces

After Egypt switched sides to the US and then made peace with Israel, Washington
provided the country with $1.3 billion a year in security assistance, much to
buy (American) weapons, along with varying amounts of mostly economic support,
in recent years running somewhat
above $100 million annually
. After the 2013 coup the Obama administration
restricted some transfers, but those limits were later lifted. Now progressives
in Congress have attempted to condition $300 million in aid on improvements
in human rights while the Biden administration, which ostentatiously claimed
the centrality of human rights to its foreign policy, worked to block those
restrictions without including a waiver, which its predecessors have always
used to continue sending the money to al-Sisi’s government.

The administration, then, promoted business as usual with the murderous al-Sisi
regime. Mira Resnick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security,
testified to Congress that “The president himself has underscored the importance
of a constructive dialogue on human rights with the government of Egypt,”
yet, she reported, he opposed conditioning the aid. Which meant any dialogue
will be pro forma, designed to fail.

Instead, Resnick emphasized other objectives: “We will continue to pursue
this even as we pursue shared security goals on maritime security, on border
security, on counterterrorism.” The administration gave al-Sisi special
praise for helping forge a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. This is the standard
excuse for continuing to support even the most brutal and murderous dictatorships.
Yet in the foregoing cases Cairo was acting in its interest. There was no reason
for the US to pay Egypt for its services. Moreover, with the Egyptian armed
services sporting American weapons, the military regime has another strong incentive
to stay with the US in the future, bolstering Washington’s leverage.

Under pressure, yesterday administration officials indicated that they planned
to tie $130 million to the al-Sisi government ending prosecution of specific
individuals and NGOs. However, while that would help Egyptians involved in the
handful of cases highlighted by the administration, it would do nothing for
tens of thousands of others suffering under systemic repression. Anyway, Cairo
could ignore the conditions and still collect more than a billion dollars. This
obviously is far from putting human rights at the center of American foreign

Although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates essentially paid for the
coup and help keep the country afloat, Cairo apparently is still sensitive about
losing Washington’s cash – perhaps more for the impact on its image than finances.
to the US played official propagandist and denounced criticism
as “lies and falsehoods propagated by people who belong to a terrorist
organization.” Sadly, the real terrorists are running al-Sisi’s government.

If Americans’ money was just wasted, underwriting a military caste that uses
its political clout to colonize the economy – controlling up to 40 percent of
GDP by some estimates – and enrich itself, that would be bad enough. However,
Washington is buying future troubles. Dunne
: “The problem is Egypt’s human rights abuses, compounded by
poor governance and economic mismanagement, have accelerated domestic instability
and terrorism.” Just as al-Qaeda head Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri
was radicalized in Mubarak’s prisons, a future head of al-Qaeda or other terrorist
groups might be radicalized in al-Sisi’s prisons.

US leverage is limited since the Gulf states could and likely would make up
any losses from America. Washington cannot force Cairo to reform. However, at
least the Biden administration could stop forcing Americans to fund ostentatious
tyranny, making them complicit in murder, oppression, and corruption. Ugly accommodations
often were necessary during the Cold War. Not so much now, however.

Biden once
that he would provide “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite
dictator’.” It is time for the president to stand up for human rights.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of
Foreign Follies: America’s New
Global Empire.

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