Egypt’s Moves to Destroy its Human Rights Movement Threaten U.S. National Interests

This blog is cross-posted from the Huffington Post:

This article could not be published in Egypt. At least that’s my understanding of the gag order a judge, Hesham Abdel Meguid, imposed on reporting or commenting on the criminal case against independent civil society organizations in Egypt after meeting with President Sisi and his senior intelligence and security advisors.

So much for judicial independence from the executive branch.

Strangely, Sisi seems to believe that suppressing reporting about the case, which is an outrageous violation of the Egyptian Constitution and of international human rights treaties, will help protect Egypt’s image abroad.

I have bad news for President Sisi. Gagging the press tends to make people think that there must be something to hide, and in this case they would be right. The Egyptian government is in the process of wiping out the independent human rights movement in Egypt. This movement has developed slowly over the past 30 years, sometimes under difficult circumstances and always in the face of a restrictive legal environment.

Pressure has been mounting on independent civil society activists in Egypt for months—with death threats driving activists into exile, arbitrary travel bans, raids on NGO offices, threatened asset freezes, and the resuscitation of Case No. 173. That’s the so-called NGO Foreign Funding Case, which resulted in sentencing 43 Egyptian and foreign employees of human rights and democracy promotion organizations to prison in 2013 and closing the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Now the same investigation, driven by security and intelligence agencies, is on the verge of presenting charges against some 37 independent civil society organizations, including Egypt’s most active and prominent human rights organizations: the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, and the United Group. All of these groups have been targeted in recent weeks.

This severe escalation of the threat against independent civil society organizations, coming at a time when activists fear not just prosecution and imprisonment, but also abduction, disappearance, and brutal treatment in secret detention centers, prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to express concern about the situation last Friday evening.

This was a welcome change of tone from Kerry—who has been studiously ignoring the disastrous course of events in Egypt for years—but it will not be enough to save Egypt’s beleaguered human rights community. That will require a stronger reaction from U.S. policy makers, including from President Obama, and tangible policy steps from Congress and the administration. They should give notice to the Egyptian government that shutting down independent civil society will carry a cost—such as withholding foreign assistance, including an annual $1.3 billion in military aid.

Some may object that withholding foreign assistance to protect Egyptian civil society might harm U.S. security interests. The opposite is true.

Over the past year the administration has been promoting a new global initiative to counter violent extremism. The CVE initiative, which promotes a preventive, civilian centered approach to combatting terrorism, comes out of the recognition that traditional, security-centric hard approaches to combatting terrorism have not worked and are insufficient to prevent the emergence of new terrorist threats. The preventive CVE approach depends on safeguarding space for independent civil society organizations to operate and express their views.

Egypt’s ominous steps to obliterate its human rights community run directly counter to Obama’s CVE strategy, which has been supported by over 120 states, including in theory—although obviously not in practice—the government of Egypt. The U.N. Secretary General has launched his own Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism which also emphasizes the vital importance of independent civil society in the endeavor.

The Sisi government’s wholesale repression and denial of rights and freedom is fueling the grievances on which violent extremism feeds. Sisi’s policies are part of the problem. They fuel instability and political violence in Egypt and beyond. Today Human Rights First joined with other members of  the Working Group on Egypt to send a letter to President Obama urging him to take a firm stand to support the continued existence of independent human rights organizations in Egypt, before it is too late.


Published on March 23, 2016


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