How to Navigate Egypt’s Enduring Human Rights Crisis

On the fifth anniversary of the mass Tahrir Square protests that ousted former President Mubarak, Egyptians are suffering severe repression and political instability. As this crisis deepens, Washington continues to send troubling mixed messages about its commitment to trying to resolve it. The U.S. government should, at long last, use its considerable influence to support civil society and advance human rights in Egypt. Such an approach would both help Egyptians and serve U.S interests.

This blueprint draws on dozens of interviews with Egyptian human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, families of detainees, lawyers, government officials, and others, conducted during a research trip in January 2016. It examines conditions in Egypt, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. response, and potential opportunities for the U.S. government to support civil society and strengthen respect for human rights.

This year will be a defining one as violent extremism, regional conflicts, and political and economic mismanagement threaten Egypt—and as President Obama shapes his legacy in the Middle East. In 2009, he delivered a message of hope in Cairo: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Much has changed in the intervening years. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, President Obama opted for analysis rather than exhortation, noting that: “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.” He continued: “I believe a government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.”

Yet the U.S. government’s handling of the enduring crisis in Egypt has too often failed to draw obvious conclusions from the Administration’s analysis of the detrimental impact of human rights violations on stability and progress. As a result, many Egyptians view the Obama Administration as supportive of the repressive leadership in Cairo. This support for the dictatorship will render Egypt less stable, undermine U.S. efforts to prevent violent extremism, and further damage Washington’s credibility in the region.

This blueprint follows a series of recent Human Rights First reports on Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011, including How to Prevent Egypt Slipping into a Deepening Crisis, December 2014; Back to Square One: The U.S. Government and Political Change in Egypt, January 2014; How to Turn Around Egypt’s Disastrous Post-Mubarak Transition, December 2013; Egypt: Attacks on the Media, May 2013; Egypt’s Human Rights Crisis Deepens, March 2013; How to Make Change in Egypt a Human Rights Success Story, December 2012; Egypt’s Transition to Democracy One Year On, January 2012; Promoting Reform in Egypt, November 2011; and How to Seize the Moment in Egypt, April 2011.


The United States should not surrender its values and further tarnish its international reputation as a global leader on human rights in its relationship with a key regional partner and longtime ally. U.S. efforts should be focused on using the significant leverage it still has, and on developing further avenues of influence in a critical relationship for U.S. interests in the region.

As part of its bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagement on Egypt, the U.S. government should implement the following recommendations.

Statements on Human Rights and Democratic Progress

  • The U.S. government should continue to make clear its support for civilian democratic rule in Egypt, and should not make assertions or certifications about democratic progress that have no basis in reality. It should withhold support for authoritarian leaders in Cairo (in concert with other like-minded governments if possible), and be seen to be doing so, when the government fails to protect universal rights, even if in the short-term other interests might suffer. It should recalibrate its relationship and avoid replicating an over-reliance on the super-empowered presidency.
  • Opaque and politic messages from the United States on Egypt’s political direction have not helped. Top U.S. officials should stop saying that Egypt is on the path to democracy, when it is not. There is a need for much clearer public statements from Washington on its assessment of what is happening in Egypt and the ramifications for U.S. interests, including human rights and democracy.
  • Consistently emphasize the importance of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in high-level bilateral discussions, as an integral part of any return to credible, inclusive civilian democratic politics.

​Comprehensive Reassessment of U.S. Aid to Egypt

  • The U.S. government should carry out a comprehensive reassessment of the aid relationship with Egypt, including: rebalancing military and civilian assistance; reviewing the ways in which military assistance is spent; and developing ways that U.S. assistance could be better employed to meet the basic needs of the Egyptian people. Congress should support President Obama’s decision to end cash flow financing to Egypt by FY2018.
  • Closely evaluate and produce reports on the use of military aid which has been reinstated to Egypt, assessing the extent to which such aid is furthering shared U.S. and Egyptian interests and is being used for designated national security purposes.
  • Deliver a strong and consistent response at the highest levels to Egyptian officials to ensure that they make progress toward meeting human rights and governance conditions attached to aid. Military assistance can be a tool for the United States to encourage and persuade the Egyptian military (and other Egyptian institutions, by extension) to be more transparent about its expenditures. The United States should use discussions around current and future military aid to Egypt to raise the issue of restrictive reporting on military issues; it should urge that the onus be on the military to explain what information should be kept from the public and the media.
  • Complement U.S. support for civil society with targeted support to build the capacity of state institutions essential to the functioning of democratic society (like the Parliament and the National Human Rights Council). Respond to widespread demands in Egyptian society for greater transparency in U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt (which would help to counter disinformation). The U.S. Embassy should work with embassies from like-minded countries to explain how its support for civil society is part of a global commitment to human rights, not some conspiracy to harm Egypt’s interests or undermine its sovereignty.
  • Initiate consultations with the Egyptian government and Parliament on protecting civil society organizations’ independence and right to receive domestic and foreign funding.
  • Explore the possibility of developing a multilateral fund to support civil society organizations in Egypt that may avoid the negative attention that U.S. democracy assistance has been subjected to.

​Support for Legal Reforms to Protect Civil Society

The U.S. government should press for reform in laws governing the functioning of NGOs to free them from government interference, burdensome registration requirements, and foreign funding restrictions. Urge the Egyptian authorities to immediately halt enforcement of the 2002 Law on Associations, including by withdrawing any prosecutions or travel bans leveled against NGO staff simply for their work or membership in such an organization.

  • Offer technical assistance to the Egyptian authorities to enact a new law on associations that complies with international human rights standards, and urge for meaningful consultation with independent civil society organizations in the drafting process. Speak forcefully and publicly against any proposed NGO law that falls short of international standards. Work with the Egyptian government, civil society, and international partners to establish a regulatory framework for NGOs that protects the right of freedom of association while ensuring that organizations are transparent and accountable.
  • Urge the Egyptian government to bring counterterrorism legislation into line with Egypt’s constitutional requirements and its international human rights commitments.

Challenging Attacks on NGOs and Human Rights Defenders

  • The U.S. government should challenge undue restrictions on Egypt’s civil society. Publicly urge the Egyptian government to stop attacks on NGOs and activists, including through state media outlets; announce a moratorium on NGO closures, raids, or prosecutions; repeal restrictive laws; and immediately release all detainees who are currently detained for the peaceful expression of their views.
  • Send trial observers from the U.S. Embassy to politically-motivated trials of human rights defenders, if the defender so wishes, and issue public statements on the fairness of proceedings.
  • Negotiate a durable arrangement with the Egyptian authorities to ensure the long-term stability and integrity of U.S. assistance to independent human rights and democracy organizations in Egypt.
  • The U.S. Embassy should be in regular contact with a wide range of civil society actors, including human rights defenders, and provide clear public support for those subject to harassment, threats, and violence. The U.S. government should be more transparent about why it wants to engage human rights defenders, why it values their input, and how it intends to use their information.
  • Translate into Arabic, publicize, and promote the State Department policy on engaging with human rights defenders worldwide, and recognize that journalists and other media figures are often human rights defenders. Link this policy to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo website.
  • Promote the presidential memo on civil society on relevant agency websites, and translate it into Arabic.
  • Propose the creation of a voluntary standards body for civil society organizations in Egypt (not one that is government-controlled).
  • Promote internet freedom by funding human rights defenders to develop tools and trainings on safe communication technologies for human rights advocacy; training government officials on best practices in protecting freedom of expression online, and user privacy and security issues; promoting legislative and regulatory reform to ensure more transparent, representative, and rule-based regulatory authority for the ICT sector; and considering ways to leverage existing trade, aid, and investment policies to support internet freedom goals.
  • Strongly express support for reform of Egypt’s criminal justice system and condemn its practices of arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, and unlawful detentions. The U.S. government should speak out in support of political prisoners and make clear that their mistreatment jeopardizes U.S.- Egypt relations. The United States should take into account the state of the criminal justice system as a strong indicator of the country’s commitment to reform and democracy.

​Support for Freedom of the Press

  • The U.S. government should speak out publicly about physical and judicial attacks on journalists; issue statements and hold events with like-minded governments on media freedoms; and coordinate with other embassies to offer and deliver trainings to journalists and media figures in Egypt.
  • Push back forcefully against efforts to limit media freedom through legal reforms or enforcement practices. Freedom of expression is an essential right that leads to the exercise of other rights, and a key indicator of democratic progress would be an Egyptian media whose freedom of expression is respected, promoted, and guaranteed.

Protections for Religious Minorities

  • The U.S. government should make clear its opposition to blasphemy laws and the defamation of religions concept, and encourage public officials to protect freedom of expression and religious pluralism. The U.S. should push the Egyptian authorities to investigate all incidents of violence against Christians and other religious minorities, assaults on their property and institutions, and hold accountable those responsible. The Department of Justice could also make resources available for prosecutions and police trainings.

Published on January 25, 2016


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