Human Rights Dilemma in Egyptian American Affairs

As Sisi Launches National Strategy for Human Rights, Biden Ups Pressure, Considers Aid Cuts
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

The human rights issue shall remain a daunting subject in the relationship between the international community and most of the countries of the Middle East. There is a huge gap between how the eastern and western countries interpret the terminology, concept, priorities, and application of human rights principles. The repetitive diplomatic and economic pressures exerted by the United States and European countries on their Arab allies in that regard, widens this gap and adds to the human rights dilemma in the Arab region rather than solving it. The renewed controversy aroused by the United States’ decision to withhold part of the military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns is the most recent example on this.

On Monday, 14th of September, Politico magazine mentioned that the Biden Administration is looking into upholding ten per cent (about US$ 130 million) of the military aid due to Egypt, in order to pressure the Egyptian state to improve performance on guaranteeing and respecting human rights. US State Department officials told the Washington-based magazine that the withheld amount may be available in future fiscal years if Egypt succeed in improving its human rights record. Egypt received the news with a sense of disappointment. While the U.S. Administration is primarily concerned with improving political and civil rights, it failed to see or appreciate the tremendous efforts exerted by the Egyptian political leadership of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, over the past six years, to improve economic, social, and cultural rights for impoverished and vulnerable citizen groups.

The US military aid to Egypt is provided on annual basis, in adherence to the Peace Accord that was signed, in 1979, between Egypt and Israel under U.S. mediation. Usually, the aid amount is not supplied in monetary cash, but invested in arms procurement deals and military exercises, that also benefit the United States. However, about 300 million dollars of the aid amount is conditioned to improving human rights record. This particular point of binding the US military aid to Egypt with improving the state performance on human rights issues has instigated a dozen political conflicts between the U.S. and Egypt, in the past, which left stains on the strategic relationship between the two countries that is necessary for handling regional affairs.

A History of Backfiring Pressures

Almost all Democrat U.S. Administrations embraces human rights as a central theme for their foreign policy. In a public address by President Biden, on September 13th, he reiterated that. In his historical speech to the Muslim World from Cairo University, in June 2009, former U.S. President Barack Obama said that the U.S. is determined to defend and promote human rights, as the core of its international mission.

“America does not presume to know what is best for everyone… 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;” said President Obama. 

Nevertheless, there is a flaw in the methods used by the successive U.S. administrations in addressing the critical and complicated issue of improving human rights status in Egypt and other Arab countries. Applying political pressures, in the form of withholding military or economic aid to Egypt for example, has never yielded sustainable results. The target state may take temporary steps that give the illusion that it is progressing on human rights, but as soon as the pressures are lifted it goes back to work on other urgent priorities.

In 2005, the Republican Administration of President George Bush threatened to cut a portion of the annual U.S. economic and military aid package due to Egypt, if then-president Mubarak had not availed a space in parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, who represented themselves to the international community as political dissidents, at that time. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists gained more influence over social, cultural, and political arenas inside Egypt. Meanwhile, the relationship between Egypt and the United States fell into a long pause for about four years, until Bush was replaced by Obama in 2009. During those years, the U.S. role and interests in the Middle East region were dramatically hindered.

Ten years later, during which Egyptians led two successful revolutions that overthrew Mubarak’s autocratic regime, in 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s theocratic regime, in 2013, the U.S. Administration of President Obama played the same dangerous card of mixing the military aid with the human rights issue, against the current regime of President El-Sisi. Similar to what happened with President Bush, the Obama Administration’s move backfired, causing serious damage to U.S. political and military influence over the Middle East, while in return did not stimulate any tangible human rights reforms, as a direct result to this pressure.

For the past four decades, Egypt depended, almost exclusively, on the United States for armament. Egypt receives an economic and military aid package of 1.3 billion dollars from the United States on an annual basis, in compliance with the provisions of the Peace Accord signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979. A few months after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, in 2013, the Obama Administration decided to freeze the military aid to Egypt, and thus put on hold its military procurement efforts. The aid freeze got partially lift in 2015, and then applied again in 2016, and then lift again in 2018, after Trump took office, and then partially cut at the end of Trump administration.

Eventually, Egypt found itself obliged to abandon the U.S. as its exclusive military ally, and decided to actively diversify its sources of armament to avoid the consequences of U.S. morbid abuse of the military aid in applying political pressures. Today, Egypt’s military exporters and allies include Russia, China, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt occupies 3rd position among world’s 25 largest arms importers, in 2019.

A photo taken during the Joint Training of "Bright Star 2021" at an Air Base, published by the official Facebook page of the Egyptian Military Spokesman, on September 15, 2021.​​​​​

Biden Repeating the Mistake of His Predecessors

Unfortunately, the U.S. Administration of President Biden has not learnt from the mistakes of former administration and is not willing to change the flawed policy of applying economic and political pressures, through cutting or freezing the military aid, to push Egypt to improve human rights. This method did not work with former Egyptian regimes, and will not work with the current Egyptian leadership. Let alone the stains it is going to leave on the strategic partnership between the two countries.

Since the election of President Biden, in November 2020, several advocacy campaigns, in Washington, supported by congressmen, has been calling on the Biden Administration to cut or freeze the military aid package due to Egypt, this year, for human rights concerns. Biden Administration’s response to these campaigns was usually confirming that the U.S. is working with the Egyptian state on the issue, without this affecting the bilateral ties and the mutual interests of the two countries. For example, Ned Price, U.S. State Department Spokesperson, said on a press conference, on March 11th, in response to a question in this regard, that “Egypt plays an important role in promoting some of our key interests in the region: regional security and stability through the guardianship of the Suez Canal; counterterrorism cooperation; and its leadership in promoting Middle East peace.”

Two months later, in May, Egypt’s single-handed success in containing the latest episode of war between Hamas and Israel, came as an urgent reminder on Egypt being the most reliable and the most important partner for the United States, in the Middle East region. Last week, President El-Sisi received the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, in a historical meeting that marked the beginning of a whole new era of warm and friendly relationship between Egypt and Israel. Ironically, the decision to freeze military aid to Egypt was discussed while American troops were present in Egypt for the US Central Command’s “Bright Star” military exercises. The Bright Star has been convened on annual basis by the US military, on Egyptian soil, since 1981, and is considered the benchmark of Egypt-US strategic bond.

In that sense, it is disappointing to watch the Biden Administration prefers to take the easy route of pressuring Egypt to improve human rights conditions, through cutting the military aid. This policy has proven its failure several times, in the past. Rather, the U.S. should have worked with the Egyptian leadership, through tutoring and guidance, to show them how to improve human rights, especially that El-Sisi regime is sincere about achieving progress in that regard.

Human Rights Under El-Sisi Leadership

The Egyptian state’s performance related to human rights has always been a source for conflict in Egypt’s relations with the world. While Egypt’s western allies pushed the Egyptian government to focus on improving civil and political rights, the Egyptian state gave the priority to social and economic rights. This created situations of misunderstanding between Egypt and key players in the international community. During his latest visit to France, in December, President El-Sisi had to go through a live debate to refute claims about Egypt’s systematic violations of human rights, as was suggested by some present journalists.

"I will not place conditions on our economic and defense cooperation with Egypt because of these issues (i.e., human rights),” responded President Macron to a journalist who asked him, during his press conference with President El-Sisi, on whether France could link economic and military investments in Egypt to conditions related to improving human rights situation. "The policy of dialogue is better than the policy of boycott, which harms our ability to fight terrorism and our work for regional stability. Setting conditions will not allow progress in regional matters. Rather, it cuts off the discussion between us, and weakens one of our important allies in our war on terror and for the stability of the region, and it will not help in developing human right."

In response to the same question, President El-Sisi noted that “the Egyptian state has been fighting an extremist Islamic organization that has been wreaking havoc in Egypt for over 90 years (in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood). It is not fair to label the Egyptian state as an authoritarian regime because we are fighting extremism."

In fact, no one could claim that Egypt is an ideal country wherein human rights principles are fully guaranteed and respected. Egypt suffers from chronic deficiencies on this issue, mostly inherited from the long era of corruption and tyranny under Mubarak. The Egyptian state does not deny this fact and has been sincerely working, for six years, to improve human rights conditions, amidst countless political and security challenges. Despite the delay on reforming civil and political rights, Egypt witnessed a leap on improving economic, social, and cultural rights, thanks to new legislative amendments and national projects targeting improving health, housing, and security conditions, as well as protecting freedom of religion and empowering women in public life.

As a tangible proof on that, on September 11th, President El-Sisi took a historical step by launching the National Strategy for Human Rights and dedicating the year 2022 to the Civil Society.  The National Strategy for Human Rights is the first document of its kind in the history of Egypt. In 2018, the Egyptian Prime Minister founded a new committee, with the name “The Permanent Higher Committee for Human Rights.” The purpose of this new governmental committee is to help the Egyptian state improve its human rights record and practices. The committee is primarily responsible for handling all complaints by local and international organizations related to human rights violations in Egypt. Meanwhile, for three years, the committee worked in cooperation with government bodies, national councils for human and women’s rights, religious institutions, and human rights organizations, on developing an implementable national strategy to improve human rights conditions.

Nevertheless, the real obstacle which has always been preventing Egypt from making tangible progress on the civil and political rights agenda, is not the lack of will or lack of sincerity by the political leadership. The essence of the problem lies in the poor choices the government used to make in relation to the mechanisms used and individuals entrusted with handling this extremely complicated portfolio of advancing human rights. The new governmental permanent committee and its newly released national strategy for human rights came specifically to fix this flaw.

The National Human Rights Strategy, launched by President El-Sisi on Saturday, is the first long-term action plan to develop the Egyptian state’s performance on issues related to human rights advancement. The strategy is built on key four pillars: advancing economic, social, and cultural rights; advancing the rights of women and children; advancing the rights of the people with disabilities, youth, and the elderly; and the dissemination of human rights culture among the public. This will happen, taking into account a very important point, which President Sisi pointed out at the launch ceremony. That is “to keep a balance between citizen’s rights and duties, individual rights and societal obligations, and fighting corruption to ensure the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”

Conclusion

When released in December 1948, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was meant to be a global constitution that all humans, from all walks of life, can enjoy the privileges it offers and commit to the principles it stipulates. More than half a century later, the majority of the thirty principles of the UDHR are still seen as hard-to-reach goals for most people, not only in non-democratic or less-developed countries, but also in developed countries with established democratic systems of governance. In other words, almost every state in the world has failed in committing to human rights values, at some time in its history, followed by long years or even decades of hard work and struggle to make up and rebuild its internal systems in a way that respects human rights. For example, the practice of racial discrimination against the black people in the United States has been an issue for decades and it took the American administrations a huge amount of courage to fight against slavery and give equal rights to all people, within the democratic system.

Despite these historical facts, the United States and some European countries love to pressure their Arab allies, rather than helping them, to fix the human rights situation in their countries. They hardly exert an effort to understand how human rights agenda works or how their systems of governance operate. Narrowing this gap by understanding the Arab perspective on the issue, and cooperating with Arab countries, rather than applying an array of diplomatic and politic pressures on them, is the most effective method for sustainable advancement of human rights in the Middle East region. That will also serve to enhance the strategic economic, political, and military interests of the United States and Europe in the Middle East.

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