The United States has denounced Egypt’s newly expanded counter terrorism law and expressed concern about its potential impact on human rights in the country.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a law on 16th August expanding the government’s surveillance powers and, according to critics, muzzle dissent and target opponents. Human rights activists have accused Sisi of leading an increasingly repressive regime.
However, despite the American denunciation, Egypt remains a solid military ally of the United States. The US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo on Sunday 2nd to meet his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He said that US-Egyptian relations were returning to a “stronger base” in bilateral ties despite tensions and human rights concerns.
In a statement that day the US State Dept noted that the two sides had “renewed their commitment to the strategic relationship and resolved to take practical and specific steps to consolidate it. They further stressed that a long-term and strong Egypt-U.S. partnership, anchored in the common goals of their strategic ties, is vital for the peace, stability and prosperity of the region. The two sides agreed to hold the next round of the Strategic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. in 2016”.
This came just after the US delivered eight F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of a military support package. At the same time Kerry acknowledged stress in the US-Egypt relationship over human rights and said the US would continue to press Egypt on the arrests of dissidents and journalists and mass trials.
The US moves come as some analysts argue that the new regime is no better than the old. For example a headline in The Atlantic January read: Is Egypt on the Verge of Another Uprising? The article argues that the regime the Egyptians overthrew 4 years ago has returned. “In the face of relentless pressure and violence from the authorities, most of the revolutionary movements have
been side-lined or snuffed out”.
Following the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood won the November 2011 elections and the presidential elections of June 2012.
Having been declared the fifth President of Egypt Mohamad Morsi, instead of acting as President for the country acted as a political party chief. He swiftly moved to get rid of Army Chief Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and replaced him with the younger General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Morsi then cancelled a constitutional declaration aimed at curbing his powers. In November 2012 he stripped constitutional court judges of all powers. Secular and liberal Egyptians felt excluded and disenfranchised. Once again the people protested and denounced Morsi as the new Mubarak. The economic situation got worse, prices of essential commodities shot up, the country suffered repeated power cuts and fuel shortages. The protests grew, culminating in June 2013 with millions of Egyptians assembling in Cairo. The army intervened, backed by liberals, the Copts and Al-Azhar Authority (the highest religious authority in the Muslim Sunni world) and Morsi was removed from office by the army.
On May this year a court pronounced death sentences on Morsi and more than 100 other people over a mass prison break in 2011. Liberals, seculars and the Coptic Christians welcomed el-Sisi’s decisive action.
However, many observers and analysts agree with The Atlantic view, that the harsh tactics used by the security forces are taking Egyptians back to the days of the Mubarak era. The courts have lost their independence and impartiality. They judiciary has been politicised and is seen as a tool of the regime. The chronic problems of poverty, unemployment, acute housing shortages, and inadequate health care system remain unaddressed and even got worse.
So why does the US not criticise el-Sisi?
According to a recent analysis by Bloomberg “President Barack Obama’s decision to lift the partial embargo on military aid to Egypt is a harsh nod to reality. Since taking power in a military coup in 2013, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has been every bit the tyrant, showing utter disregard for civil rights. And the Obama administration has long claimed it would lift the embargo only if Egypt showed “credible progress” toward restoring democracy.”
Yet despite all of this, the US-Egyptian ties are warming after two years of strain, doubt and uncertainty.
Egypt has been considered a solid ally to the West since the early 1970s when President Sadat expelled Soviet advisers and reoriented Egypt westwards.
Then in 1977 Sadat paid a historic visit to Israel, beginning the process that led to the 1979 peace treaty, the return of occupied Sinai Peninsula and Egypt became a major beneficiary of US financial aid. By 1991 they were so close that Egypt joined the allied coalition to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Egypt is repressive, it is authoritarian but that’s due to the existence of terrorist threats. It still has a strong civil society and almost independent vibrant media. It is the biggest Arab country. It is a robust linchpin in the fight against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, and the West supports Egypt efforts in defeating al Qaeda and ISIS in the Sinai. Despite all the short-comings Egypt remains a regional power and a bulwark against Islamic extremism and terrorism. Hence, the US talks about human rights, but also about ‘common goals’ as it delivers fighter jets to Cairo.
Nehad Ismail is a UK based commentator on Middle Eastern Issues