Egyptian human rights advocates decry US release of military aid

The issue of human rights is becoming sensitive in Egypt and comments by foreign visitors on it often anger Sisi.
Saturday 14/09/2019
Giving a hand. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the Department of State in Washington, last March . (AP)
Giving a hand. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the Department of State in Washington, last March . (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt’s human rights advocates said they were worried after the US State Department released annual military aid to Egypt in full, adding that the move would embolden the administration of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi towards disregard for human rights.

“The move also shows that the current US administration does not care about human rights at all,” said rights activist Khaled Emam. “This disappoints all those working to defend the rights of Egyptian citizens.”

In January, the US House of Representatives, addressing perceived human rights issues in Egypt, gave preliminary approval to withholding $300 million out of a total of $1.3 billion in annual military assistance to Egypt.

To receive the remaining $300 million, Egypt was to take measures to advance democracy and human rights, release political prisoners and protect anti-government protesters.

However, the State Department approved the release of the military aid in full after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waived human rights conditions. He described Egypt as “important to the national security interests of the United States.”

This is frustrating rights advocates who had hoped the measure would force Egypt to improve its human rights record.

“Human rights are not a priority, not only for decision makers in the United States but also everywhere else,” said Dalia Ziyada, executive director of Egyptian Centre for Free Democracy Studies, a local think-tank. “Human rights are trumped by the fight against terrorism and the need to preserve security.”

The issue is becoming sensitive in Egypt and comments by foreign visitors on it often anger Sisi. In January, he lost his temper when a French journalist accompanying French President Emmanuel Macron asked him about human rights.

“We are part of a region bursting at the seams with tension,” Sisi said. “You would have benefited us nothing if a civil war had erupted in Egypt.”

Macron had earlier said he believed the stability of states was strongly connected with respect for individual rights and the rule of law.

In February, Sisi berated another journalist who asked him about Egypt’s human rights record. “You will not teach us what humanity is about. We have our own humanity which you have to respect,” Sisi said.

However, rights groups decry human rights conditions in Egypt, alleging the Sisi administration disregards individual freedoms, prohibits peaceful assembly and jails thousands of political activists. Restrictions on the work of civil society organisations in Egypt have also been criticised.

Emam cited what he described as the “enforced disappearance” of political activists as a flagrant human rights violation.

“Referring civilians to military courts and restrictions to the work of NGOs are also violations that need to be addressed,” he said.

The National Council for Human Rights, the state-run rights watchdog, said it is considering ways to invite the government’s attention to the need for improving human rights conditions.

Council board member George Ishaq said he and his colleagues have been requesting to check conditions in the country’s jails for two years.

“We have not been allowed to do this,” Ishaq said. “We also submitted requests for the release of political prisoners who are not involved in terrorist attacks.”

Egypt is caught in a wave of extremism. The Egyptian Army and police have been fighting Islamic State militants in Sinai and militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood elsewhere.

“It is not easy to defend human rights in a country that fights terrorism,” Ziyada said. “This is why security is becoming far more important to ordinary people than human rights.”

Egypt is also mediating between the Palestinians and the Israelis, plays an important role in international counterterrorism efforts and has worked to try to limit Iranian expansion efforts.

During his meeting with Sisi on the sidelines of the G7 summit in August, US President Donald Trump described Sisi as a “very important” figure” in the US Middle East peace plan.

“For all these reasons, Trump’s administration will not give priority to human rights over relations with Egypt,” said Samir Ghattas, the head of local think-tank Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies. “Egypt is a cornerstone of security in the Middle East and Africa and no country can overlook this.”

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