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Egypt has Become a “Republic of Fear”

Posted June 17th, 2015 at 4:25 pm (UTC-5)
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By Barbara Slavin

The Middle East is facing no shortage of crises, but more attention should be paid to one that is getting comparatively little notice in the U.S.: the human rights catastrophe unfolding in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Political repression in Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now worse than anything the country has experienced since it first fell under military rule in the 1950s, says Michelle Dunne, an expert on Egypt at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Tens of thousands of people are in jail for alleged political crimes and a death sentence against Sisi’s democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, was upheld Tuesday by an Egyptian court.

Even more frightening, security services have reportedly begun using a tactic reminiscent of the Argentine juntas of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

In the New York Times this week, Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy described how security forces are seizing scores of young people, holding them indefinitely and in at least two cases since April, killing the detainees. One of the victims was Islam Ateeto, 23, whose bloody body was presented to his mother two days after he was abducted from Ain Shams University.

“The security services have run amok,” Dunne told VOA. “The repression now is worse than the 1950s and 60s.”

The Sisi government’s response to criticism has been to target the messenger. Dunne, a respected academic and former State Department Middle East specialist, was turned back at the airport and barred from entering Egypt in December.

Egyptian human rights organizations that try to document and publicize abuses are being threatened with prosecution for receiving foreign funding or besmirching Egypt’s reputation – “crimes” that could lead to life in prison for their leaders, Dunne said.

Bahey eldin Hassan, director of one of the groups being investigated – the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies — wrote in an institute newsletter that he has also been the target of death threats.

On May 28, Hassan gave a statement about the abysmal status of human rights in Egypt before the Human Rights Committee of the European Parliament in which he said that his country had become “a republic of fear.”

The Sisi government justifies extreme repression as necessary to counter Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and expunge the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – a group that proved inept at governing Egypt from 2012-2013 but which renounced violence several decades ago.

However, Sisi’s policies have fed terrorism, not ended it. Bombs keep going off in the Sinai and recent terrorist incidents in Luxor and near Egypt’s most iconic monument – the Pyramids – are likely to make even the bravest prospective tourists reconsider their travel plans.

That leaves Egypt dependent on continued largesse from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, which have been propping up Sisi with billions of dollars in aid but face their own challenges because of declining oil prices.

Sisi, a Field Marshal who led the military ouster of Morsi in July 2013, won an anemic victory  in presidential elections a year ago and has yet to fulfill his pledge to hold parliamentary elections, allowing him to continue to govern by decree. It is not clear that a parliament would make much difference given the stifling of political discourse in the country since Sisi took power.

Nervana Mahmoud, a prominent blogger on Egypt, told VOA that Egypt is “regressing to the frozen politics of the ‘70s” when then President Anwar Sadat clamped down on all independent political expression.

Sadat, who was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1981, was lionized in the West for making peace with Israel. Sisi has also won favor with Israel – as well as with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which approve of his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. These countries and their allies in the U.S. Congress pressured the Barack Obama administration to restore military aid to Egypt that had been partly suspended after the 2013 coup. “The fact that U.S. regional allies have pushed very consistently for support to the Egyptian military has had a pretty significant effect,” Dunne said.

The U.S. administration – preoccupied with the threat of the Islamic State group in Iraq and wars in Syria and Yemen – seems disinclined to do more about the Egyptian human rights crisis beyond issuing rhetorical condemnations.

John Kirby, the new State Department spokesman, sent out a statement late Tuesday, saying that the U.S. was “deeply troubled by the Egyptian court’s decision today confirming the death sentence of several defendants, including former President Morsi … We continue to stress the need for due process and individualized judicial processes for all in the interest of justice. As we have said before, the protection of individual rights, including the right to due process, is critical to the stability and prosperity that Egypt seeks.”

But without concrete steps – such as raising Egypt’s abuses at the U.N. Human Rights Council or cutting U.S. aid to Egypt for the next fiscal year – U.S. actions are likely to do little to dissuade Sisi from continuing actions that are dooming an old ally to a future of instability and fueling the growth of radical Islam across the Middle East.

“There’s no end to the repression in sight and anger among young people is just escalating,” Dunne said. “I am really worried about where this country is going and what it’s going to look like in five years.”


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