Report: How to Protect Civil Society and Promote Stability in Egypt

Citing a steadily worsening human rights situation, activists and foreign diplomats in Cairo urge the U.S. government to withhold military aid from the Egyptian government. They say this would send an important signal to the government of President Sisi, put a brake on its repression of civil society, and help create vital space for peaceful dissent.

In April 2017, President Trump granted President Sisi the White House visit he had been denied under the Obama Administration. But apart from releasing from prison Egyptian-American human rights defender Aya Hijazi, her husband, and four co-workers, President Sisi has made no improvements in the human rights climate since the meeting.

With a mounting economic crisis and the worst government repression in decades, activists say Egypt is headed for severe instability. “In the years after 2011, there was some organization to the protests and dissent,” said Mina Thabet of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). “Now the social movement leaders are in jail or silenced or exiled. Now there’s no-one to control and stabilize things. We had organized anger for five or six years. Next time we’ll have disorganized anger.”

Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must decide by September 30th whether to release the 15 percent of U.S. Foreign Military Funding (FMF) aid Congress made contingent on human rights reform. Prior to releasing these funds, Secretary Tillerson must certify that the government “is taking effective steps to protect freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, including the ability of civil society organizations and the media to function without interference.”

President Sisi’s government is clearly failing on all of these fronts. Secretary Tillerson should say so publicly and withhold FMF pending adequate reform. The funds should be reallocated to support democratic reform and human rights elsewhere in the region. If Secretary Tillerson invokes the law’s national security waiver—which allows him to release the funds on national security grounds without certifying progress on human rights—or certifies progress and releases the funds, Congress should object in the strongest terms.

Although American pressure cannot transform Egypt overnight—and Sisi has no magic wand to halt terrorist attacks or sectarian violence—there are important steps the Egyptian leader could take in the near term. These include lifting travel bans on human rights defenders, releasing political prisoners, halting executions, dropping charges against activists accused in the notorious foreign funding cases—which include several American citizen defendants—and shelving the new repressive NGO law, which violates Egypt’s obligations under international law. These steps would ease polarization and increase stability, while removing unnecessary sources of tension in the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the United States.

Human Rights First’s fact-finding trip to Cairo in July 2017 was a rare occurrence because the government of Egypt has blocked international human rights organizations from sending researchers to the country since 2014.This report draws on interviews with dozens of Egyptian human rights defenders, civil society activists, foreign diplomats, and others. It is the latest in a series of Human Rights First reports on Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011.


Published on September 28, 2017


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