Kerry’s Blind Spot on Egypt

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An Egyptian court’s sentencing Monday of three journalists working for Al-Jazeera English to long prison terms is the latest reminder of how badly things are going in Egypt. Two days earlier, another Egyptian court upheld the death sentences of 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood for allegedly attacking a police headquarters in southern Egypt and killing an officer and a civilian.

In between those two court rulings, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Cairo with newly elected president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former commander of the Egyptian armed forces, to urge renewal of relations between the United States and Egypt and also to pledge support for delivery of 10 U.S.-made Apache helicopters. Kerry’s visit was a flashback to the old days when ties between the two countries ignored Egypt’s horrific human rights record.

The difference, however, is that the human rights situation has worsened compared to what it was at any point under Hosni Mubarak, the longtime leader who was overthrown in February 2011. Those who protested in Tahrir Square against Mubarak never envisioned that their efforts to bring democracy and rule of law to their country would be hijacked first by the military, then by the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally again by the military in last July’s coup (which Kerry and President Obama still refuse to call a coup) against President Mohamed Morsi.

More than 1,000 people were killed in protests against the military’s return to power last August, and more than 16,000 others remain in prison on various charges. Authorities regularly arrest liberal critics of the government, bloggers, and journalists, as well as members of the Brotherhood, on trumped-up charges. In addition to the two most recent court rulings, the politically motivated convictions of 43 employees from several nongovernmental organizations (including Freedom House and involving 18 Americans) in June 2013 still stand, with some of the Egyptians ensnared in that case unable to return to their homeland without facing imprisonment.

And yet none of this has fazed Kerry over the past year. He has misguidedly claimed that the military government was on a “roadmap to democracy” or was “restoring democracy.” In his latest visit, he apparently failed even to raise the case of the 43 NGO workers.

On Monday, after he had departed Cairo, Kerry issued a statement describing the Al-Jazeera verdict as “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.” “Injustices like these,” Kerry continued, “simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward in the way that President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shoukry told me just yesterday that they aspire to see their country advance.” What other bill of goods did Sisi sell to the secretary of state?

Standing with Shoukry on Sunday in Cairo, Kerry said that Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to make certain that the process he has put in place, a reevaluation of human rights legislation, a reevaluation of the judicial process….” Ignoring the fact that Sisi has been running the country since he removed Morsi almost a year ago, Kerry went on to say that “we think it’s important for the president to be given the opportunity—only ten days in office—to begin to get his cabinet moving and begin to focus on these issues. We have time to make that measurement and we will in the days ahead.”

On Tuesday, in an embarrassing snub to Kerry, Sisi announced that he would not interfere in court rulings, arguing that “the Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary.” Sisi’s disdain for, rather than commitment to, human rights is obvious.

During his visit, Kerry met with representatives from an election monitoring group, advocates for women’s rights, and “mild critics” of the government, according to an account in the Washington Post, but Sisi’s “sharpest critics were unavailable”—largely because they are in jail.

In seeking Cairo’s help with the multitude of problems in the Middle East, not least the latest crisis in Iraq, Kerry downplayed Egypt’s worsening human rights conditions. Indeed, the United States faces an increasingly turbulent and dangerous region, but this should not translate into ignoring escalating human rights abuses in a country that receives massive amounts of U.S. assistance annually.

In Cairo, Kerry confidently predicted that all of the promised annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt, which has been unchanged for nearly three decades, would be delivered in full, this despite efforts by some members of Congress to withhold funds and equipment pending certification that Egypt is making democratic progress, among other stipulations. Sisi’s “election” does not qualify, since the entire process and outcome were predetermined and rigged. Nor do the recent court verdicts and sentences, which reflect a crackdown unseen in Egypt in decades.

By imprisoning critics and members of the Brotherhood and intensifying a crackdown on dissent, Sisi and his new government risk leaving opponents with little alternative but to take to the streets once again. No one wants to see more instability in Egypt, but the “stability” Sisi claims to be bringing to his country may be very short-lived. That possibility should force the Obama administration to develop a policy that stops playing favorites with whoever is in power—whether Morsi or Sisi or the next person—and instead focuses on democratic principles. Such a change in approach would serve U.S. interests better than pretending that Egypt is on the right path or buying the rhetoric of Egypt’s latest authoritarian leader.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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