Stopping Egypt’s Downward Spiral of Repression and Instability

Government repression has shut off avenues for peaceful dissent and is fueling unrest. The United States can do more to put Egypt on a safer path.


By Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President

Government repression has shut off avenues for peaceful dissent and is fueling unrest.
The United States can do more to put Egypt on a safer path.

The detention this week of investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat by Egyptian military intelligence is the latest example of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s intolerance for open discussion and dissent. Bahgat was targeted because he reported on miscarriages of justice, exposed false claims by officials, and raised uncomfortable questions about dissent in the military’s ranks. He was released Tuesday after two days in custody, but could still face charges.

The Egyptian government’s campaign of repression goes well beyond terrorist suspects and Islamist political activists, encompassing just about anyone who becomes a thorn in its side. This wide-ranging and brutal assault on the fundamental rights of Egyptians surpasses the scale of repression under former president Hosni Mubarak. It aims to decimate the political opposition, crush civil society, and muzzle a range of independent voices.

President el-Sisi claims that his crackdown is necessary to fight terrorism and ensure stability. In fact, Egypt has grown less stable since he seized power in 2013. The number of terrorist attacks has soared from a monthly average of less than 2 in 2011 to more than 26 in 2014 and over 75 this year.


The surge in terrorist attacks is taking place in the Sinai and around the country. The attacks have included the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and the bombing of Italy’s consulate in Cairo.

President el-Sisi unleashed a wave of state violence against the Egyptian people, including thousands killed in street demonstrations, the detention of more than 40,000 political prisoners, hundreds of documented cases of torture or forced disappearance, and sexual assaults on detainees. By shutting off avenues for peaceful dissent, he is fueling unrest.

The United States should use its leverage more effectively to persuade President el-Sisi to reverse course. There are several ways to do so:

  • Reduce military assistance: The ratio of U.S. military to economic assistance for Egypt has grown from about 1.5:1 in the 1980s to more than 8:1 now. The heavy emphasis on support for the Egyptian military at this time, while the military-dominated government is conducting a harsh campaign of repression, makes the United States look complicit and appears to subsidize President el-Sisi’s failed policy. The U.S. government should start to restructure its aid package to bring military and economic aid more into balance.
  • Set rigorous conditions for U.S. aid: The United States regularly calls on the Egyptian government to respect human rights, but its credibility is undermined by the continuation of business as usual. Conditions on aid have become, for the most part, an empty threat, as the United States typically invokes a national security waiver to keep aid flowing even when the Egyptian government carries out gross human rights abuses. Congress should mandate a delay or reduction in military assistance if the Egyptian government fails to meet rigorous conditions, including the release of all political prisoners; free and fair elections; reforms to allow civil society and media to function without interference; and credible investigations and prosecutions of security personnel for excessive use of force.
  • Press Egypt to overturn the convictions of the 43 NGO workers, including staff of Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who were sentenced in June 2013 after a politically motivated trial. These convictions still stand. They force Egyptian citizens who worked for American NGOs to remain in exile; they hang over American and other international staff; and they cast a shadow over current U.S. programs to support democracy in Egypt. The State Department appears to have moved on, sending the unfortunate signal that the U.S. government won’t stick up for the people who carry out the programs it funds.
  • Speak out for political prisoners: Senior administration officials and members of Congress should press for the release of political prisoners, both publicly and in conversations with Egyptian officials, and should visit political prisoners when they travel to Egypt.
  • Pass the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act: This proposed law (H.R.624/S.284) would impose U.S. visa bans and asset freezes on foreign officials responsible for human rights abuses, such as Egyptian commanders who have ordered security forces to fire on peaceful demonstrators, prison officials who authorize the torture of detainees, or judges who have convicted dissidents or imposed death sentences on political activists after mass trials that lacked due process. By penalizing foreign officials who have carried out abuses with impunity, the Global Magnitsky Act is designed to deter future wrongdoing.

Rather than continuing to subsidize President el-Sisi’s failed policy, the United States should align its actions more closely with its words of support for democracy and human rights in Egypt. It should reduce the emphasis in its bilateral relationship—and in its aid package—on the Egyptian military, and take visible steps to distance itself from the perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Better yet, the United States should use its leverage more effectively to persuade President el-Sisi to respect the rights of Egypt’s citizens and include them in charting the country’s future.

Photo Credit: Alisdare Hickson(Flickr/Creative Commons)