Last week, Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was the target of an assassination attempt that took place just steps from where protesters gathered last month in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. The bomb blast – reported to have injured 10 policemen and 11 civilians, including a child – is the latest in a series of violent incidents since Egypt’s recent crackdown on Islamists.
In the days leading up to the forcible clearance of two large pro-Morsi protests camps in Cairo by Egyptian security forces, I was in the city listening to opinions of what was likely to happen and how the U.S. government might encourage the emergence of a stable democracy. At that time, assassination attempts seemed unlikely. In fact, most of the activists and diplomats I spoke to were rather confident that protesters would be allowed to continue their sit-ins for a few more weeks at least, that a political solution would somehow be found. Also, there’s seems to have been a consensus that the protests camps would not be attacked by security forces as this would produce too many casualties and would make a rapprochement with Morsi supporters even more difficult.
Against these predictions, the protest camps were forcibly cleared on August 14. Scores of protesters were killed during the operation. It was a development that should have sparked a renewed sense of urgency among U.S. policymakers, who have been slow to craft a workable Egyptian foreign policy since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in the popular uprising of early 2011.
During my time in Cairo, some of those I listened to were prominent in that 2011 revolution and have been involved in liberal politics since then. They argue that the U.S. analysis of the current situation is off the mark and say that the U.S. government has been keen to see Morsi supporters as innocent victims of a violent military regime. This isn’t typically the view shared in Washington – that Morsi was a White House favorite – but it’s commonly believed in Egypt. In fact, the U.S. has much stronger ties to the Egyptian military than to the Muslim Brotherhood but the notion that Morsi was the U.S. government’s preferred partner as president has taken deep root, and is an indication of the U.S.’s failure to persuade Egyptians that it supports their human rights no matter who is in power. Many in Egypt contrast years of U.S. failure to act against the human rights abuses committed by the Mubarak, SCAF and Morsi regimes with a swift – albeit minor – punitive reaction from Washington against the new military-backed regime.
“[The United States] has played its hand so badly since the 2011 revolution (not to mention for decades before that too) that it finds itself with little influence and fewer friends in Egyptian politics or civil society.” – Brian Dooley, Human Rights First
No one I spoke with defended the killing of unarmed protesters, but many pointed out that some of the demonstrators at the two large pro-Morsi camps were armed, that Amnesty International had documented evidence that torture of political opponents was taking place in the camps, and that journalists had been assaulted there. They also pointed to the wave of attacks on Christians across the country – allegedly by Morsi supporters – attacks they believed were being ignored by much of the U.S. media.
When President Obama spoke publicly the day after protesters were forcibly removed from their camps by security forces, I heard more frustration that the U.S. seemed to suddenly care about human rights, criticizing the state of emergency imposed by the Egyptian military-backed government in the hours after the camps had been cleared. “We oppose the pursuit of martial law, which denies those rights to citizens under the principle that security trumps individual freedom…” said Obama as he announced the cancellation of a joint military exercise with the Egyptian army.
Even this token measure – which fell far short of actually cutting military aid to the new regime – triggered accusations of selectivity, that the U.S. was condemning human rights abuses it had failed to condemn under previous regimes. One leading figure in Egypt’s 2011 revolution told me, “Now the U.S. cares about a state of emergency? Now? What about all the states of emergency under Mubarak when the U.S. did nothing? Now, when there are men in masks running around the streets with AK47s and there’s a case for a short-term state of emergency and curfew, now the U.S. is against it?”
The U.S. has failed to convince the Egyptian public that it is truly committed to supporting human rights and the rule of law in Egypt, and has managed to alienate virtually every major political faction in the country. It has played its hand so badly since the 2011 revolution (not to mention for decades before that too) that it finds itself with little influence and fewer friends in Egyptian politics or civil society.
But past failures should not be any excuse for continued silence and inaction. Acknowledging that it needs to address that its popularity, credibility and influence in Egypt and across the region has fallen since early 2011, there are a few things the U.S. could do to signal a drastic break from its past approach on Egypt.
First, it should suspend military aid to the new regime and spell out what needs to happen in Egypt for that aid to be restored.
Second, it should publicly promote reconciliation and initiate a process leading to the formation of an inclusive, civilian-led, democratic government in Cairo, and explain to Egyptians how it plans to encourage reform, human rights and the rule of law.
Third, it should from here on work more visibly and transparently with other governments to help Egypt build a democratic and prosperous future, as a solid multilateral approach would be in the best interest of both Egypt and of the U.S.
Fourth, it should acknowledge and explain failed policies it had adopted when dealing with successive repressive Egyptian governments in the past.
The new approach should entail more than a mere replacement of the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. Rather, the U.S. should turn an entirely new page on how it engages with Egyptian governments and the Egyptian people. If it does not take this opportunity, the U.S. will inevitably continue to lose credibility and influence in a country it desperately needs to be stable and free.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Human Rights First.
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Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program.