While Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy received a warm welcome at the State Department earlier this week, across town Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) made clear his refusal to restart the military aid pipeline to Cairo: “I am extremely disturbed by the Egyptian Government’s flaunting of human rights and appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy.”
Leahy said he wouldn’t sign off on more assistance until he sees “convincing evidence that the [Egyptian] government is committed to the rule of law.”
Leahy’s course correction is sorely needed, particularly given the Obama administration’s apparent reluctance to view Egypt’s political transformation for what it is: an attempt by government authorities to maintain power by stifling dissent. Organizations like Human Rights Watch have repeatedly and consistently documented the routine violations of the rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly – creating a wider context that undermines the potential for a democratic transition.
While Egyptian officials insist these restrictive measures are necessary to stabilize the country, these tactics appear to be a serious miscalculation. According to official numbers, in recent months Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 16,000 people, many for exercising their right to free speech or peaceful assembly, or simply for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The actual number, according to one reputable Egyptian human rights organization, is closer to 21,000.
Security forces have shuttered multiple media outlets affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups and detained dozens of journalists, including three Al Jazeera English reporters, who are being tried on charges of disseminating “false information” and aiding a “terrorist organization.” At the end of March, a criminal court sentenced 529 people to death in one case, as if all 529 were responsible for the death of a policeman months earlier, while earlier this week the same judge trumped this record by sentencing 683 people to death. These decisions appear aimed at striking enough fear into anyone who criticizes the government that others refrain from such dissent.
One of the first laws promulgated by the military-backed government, Law 107 of 2013, dramatically restricts the right to peaceful assembly, allowing authorities to ban or forcibly disperse any protest, and arrest demonstrators under ambiguously described offenses, such as “attempt[ing] to influence the course of justice” or “imped[ing] citizen’s interests.”
The security forces’ repeated excessive use of lethal force has left well over 1,000 people dead since the military ousted former president Mohamed Morsy last July. The failure to investigate this violence has fostered a climate of impunity that undermines any meaningful possibility of political reform.
Secretary of State John Kerry seems to finally be moving beyond his mantra of urging the Egyptians to “follow through on [their] commitment to transition to democracy” which has had zero impact. But he still doesn’t see the full picture. To be sure, the options are somewhat limited and may not even be decisive. But since the administration won’t take the reins to leverage change, it looks like Senator Leahy – and his like-minded colleagues – need to give it a go.
So what should Congress look for as “convincing evidence that the [Egyptian] government is committed to the rule of law”?
First, security forces need to comply fully and at all times with international standards governing use of lethal force, using such force only where strictly necessary to save lives. That would create space for peaceful protest. Egypt should declare a moratorium on the use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators. But Egypt also needs to repeal – or at least dramatically amend -- the anti-protest law. Congress needs to take a hard line that if Egypt maintains this law it will be akin to reinforcing authoritarian tendencies of years past.
Second, Egypt needs to release all detainees arrested on political grounds. Given the high numbers of people behind bars, this would require urgent review, including judicial, of all cases. It would also mean dropping any charges unless there is a clear evidentiary basis that the person committed a crime. Such a step would be a game-changer, as it would indicate that the rule of law actually applies to arrests, and that there will be an end to mass arbitrary detention.
Finally, the authorities in Cairo need to begin a process of accountability by opening independent judicial investigations into wrongful deaths and allegations of torture by security forces. Initiating these criminal investigations would show that there’s an end in sight to the cycles of impunity that have plagued Egypt for decades. This would also signal an attempt to rein in the very worrisome security force excesses that can only worsen Egypt’s insecurity.
As the administration seeks the partial resumption of military assistance, Congress has an important opportunity to hold the Egyptian authorities’ feet to the fire to reject the status quo. Anything less will look like a complete endorsement of the government’s blatant repression – a step likely to undermine the Obama administration’s own overarching interests in maintaining regional stability.
Margon is the acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch.