Egypt is moving away from democracy, stifling freedom of expression, arresting thousands for political dissent and failing to hold the security forces accountable for “arbitrary or unlawful killings,” the Obama administration has determined in a formal report to Congress.
The administration concludes in the same report that Egypt is nevertheless too important to national security to end the roughly $1.5 billion a year it receives in American aid, most of it military. But after making that conclusion, the report proceeds to recite a discordant litany of the Egyptian government’s abuses and failings, apparently seeking to stop just short of the kind of embrace Washington once gave the strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Quietly submitted to Congress on May 12 without public announcement, the report captures the awkwardness of Washington’s rapidly shifting views of Egypt: first backing President Mubarak, then the 2011 revolt that ousted him, and now rebuilding ties with a new strongman, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Western diplomats are increasingly seeking to make the best of their relationship with Mr. Sisi, the former general who led a military takeover here two years ago, deposing the elected president, even amid reports that his government is tightening its crackdown on dissent.
“America is making the same mistake it did when they were supporting Hosni Mubarak,” said Mohamed Lotfy, a human rights advocate who was stopped last week at Cairo’s airport to prevent him from traveling to Germany during a visit there by Mr. Sisi.
By crushing hopes for peaceful and democratic political change, “Sisi is creating a new generation of terrorists, and exporting them to Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Lotfy said, while the United States has damaged its credibility in the region by “contradicting its values — or at least the values that it tries to export in speeches.”
Activists suggest that the Egyptian government may be cracking down now in anticipation of a call for a general strike by one of the activist groups that kicked off the revolt against Mr. Mubarak in 2011. It may also be preparing for potential protests at the end of the month, on the second anniversary of Mr. Sisi’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian police have detained at least three leaders of the left-leaning April 6 group, which has tried to call for the general strike on Thursday, and rights groups say several other activists have been rounded up or disappeared as well.Mr. Lotfy said his group, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, was tracking the disappearances of 10 people, and Mona Seif, another activist, said she had confirmed 17.Magdy Ashour, an Islamist activist who was featured in a documentary about the 2011 uprising called “The Square,” has also been detained, according to news reports.
Negad el-Borai, a prominent human rights lawyer, said he expected to be arrested as well, having been called in three times in recent weeks for interrogation about his opposition to torture and his previous work for human rights groups.
“Because of my past activities, I think they want revenge,” Mr. Borai said in an interview. “It will be a very hard summer.”
A talk show host, Reem Magued, was recently removed from the airwaves, and she said in an interview on another television program that her network, OnTV, had canceled her show because of government pressure. Its executives told her “there are pressures from a ‘sovereign institution’ ” — an intelligence agency, she said.
There have been efforts to suppress labor actions as well. On Sunday, a new video emerged showing soldiers firing into a crowd of workers at a military-owned cement factory in Sinai, apparently in an attempt to squelch a possible demonstration.
Two workers present, speaking on the condition of anonymity for their safety, said in separate telephone interviews that a group of workers had been approaching the administration office to request an ambulance for an injured colleague when the soldiers began shooting, killing at least one and wounding at least two others.
Spokesmen for the military, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, accused the Obama administration of shrugging off such rights violations even though “the government’s own memo acknowledges a laundry list of the worst human rights abuses.”
But Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official, noted that the administration could have kept the report vague or even classified but chose to lay out at least some of the criticism.
“They are not doing as the U.S. did with the Mubarak regime — attempting to praise the regime for cosmetic steps at reform or downplay serious rights abuses,” she said.
The administration’s report credits Egypt with beginning to overhaul its economy by cutting subsidies, increasing taxes and improving the business climate, “including for U.S. businesses.” Because Egypt is the most populous Arab state and a bellwether in the region, its “success or failure impacts the prospects of peace, stability, democracy and economic growth across the Middle East,” it says.
But “the overall trajectory for rights and democracy has been negative,” the report continues. “A series of executive initiatives, new laws and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and due process, and they undermine prospects for democratic governance.”
It noted that four American-Egyptian dual citizens were in Egyptian jails for cases with “potentially political overtones”; one of the four, Mohamed Soltan, was recently released and deported.
“Government forces have committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the dispersal of demonstrators, of persons in custody, and during military operations in the Northern Sinai Peninsula,” the report says, adding that Egyptian security forces killed “at least 1,000” in one day when theycleared two Islamist sit-ins on Aug. 14, 2013.
“The government has not held accountable any individual or government entities for violence associated with the clearing operations,” the report continues, adding, “Impunity remains a serious problem.”