Washington’s stance on the Egyptian presidential elections has been weak, particularly in light of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi‘s internal policies that have silenced opposition and public dissent, experts say.
Although the relationship between the two countries has become markedly warmer since US President Donald Trump took office in 2016, analysts note that the US should take steps to hold Sisi accountable for human rights abuses against journalists, Egyptian civil society, and political opposition now that the upcoming presidential elections have been rendered a “sham”.
An example of Sisi’s repressive policies is the detention of Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who has been held by the Egyptian authorities for more than a year and accused of broadcasting false news – accusation Al Jazeera strongly denies.
Last month, a UN body ruled his arrest “arbitrary” and said there is “no legal basis in Egyptian law” for Hussein’s continued pre-trial detention.
According to Heather Nauert, US State Department spokesperson, the issues of press freedom and the right for opposition groups to practise politics in Egypt have been on the agenda when talks between the two sides have ensued.
“We want countries [like Egypt] to hold free and fair elections,” Nauert told Al Jazeera during the State Department briefing on Thursday.
“That’s something we consistently bring up,” she said.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 20 journalists have been arrested in Egypt, some of whom are pending trial.
Andrew Miller, deputy director for Policy, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), believes that Egypt’s instability reflects poorly on US interests in the region, especially with the country being one of the few in the region that is not involved in a war.
Miller, who previously served in the US embassy in Cairo, said Sisi’s policies regarding the upcoming presidential elections and press freedom do not serve the country’s stability – rather, they encourage instability and “terrorism”.
Egypt has for years been battling an armed movement in the thinly populated Sinai Peninsula, which has gained pace since the military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013.
In 2014, after a deadly suicide bombing that killed 31 soldiers, Sisi declared a state of emergency in the peninsula, describing it as a “nesting ground for terrorism and terrorists”.
Since then, Sisi’s “brute force” strategy has led to mass displacements, civilian deaths, the erasing of entire villages and the destruction of an agricultural economy.
Yet Trump has been a firm supporter of the Sisi government’s efforts in fighting “terrorism” in the country.
“The actions recently taken to pressure or force opposition into stepping out of the presidential race do not indicate that Sisi is confident in his position as leader … which will amplify the driving factors behind the instability in the country,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
Phillip J Cowley, former US assistant secretary of state, said that despite US efforts taken to curb human rights abuses in Egypt, like withholding $1.3bn in aid, Egypt under Sisi has deteriorated.
“Egyptians do not have much of a real choice in the upcoming presidential elections,” Crowley told Al Jazeera.
“I think the seeds of the revolution are budding in Egypt right now,” he added.
Mohammed Farouk, founder of POMED, said the system in Egypt is turning its people into a group of “corpses” instead of enabling them and facilitating their participation in public life.
“The US administration perceives the situation in Egypt incorrectly. It believes that if it refrains from speaking of press freedom or civil society for instance that it is enhancing its ties with the Egyptian government,” he said.
While Farouk maintains that Egypt’s policies are reflective of other regimes in the region, Sahar Khamis, a media professor at the University of Maryland, said that Egyptians of the revolution have always only demanded one thing from the US – for its government to stop supporting authoritarian dictatorships like overthrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak‘s regime.
“Seven years post-revolutionary Egypt, US policy towards the Middle East has remained unchanged, in fact, it has deteriorated and worsened,” Khamis explained.
Crowley noted that there is a role for the US to play in reminding the Egyptian authorities and others alike of its obligations under international UN treaties, like respecting freedom of expression.
“This is something we have previously done,” he said, “but Trump has undermined this through his struggle with US media, accusing it of broadcasting fake news.”