Egypt: Hearts and minds betrayed

The resumption of US military aid to Egypt comes at a time when the country is moving away from the democracy path.

Egypt is spiraling towards instability, radicalisation and increased state repression, writes Fahmy [Getty Images]

The US Department of State’s recent decision to partially reinstate military aid to Egypt marks the beginning of the end of the battle for hearts and minds on the Arab street. What do these actions say about the commitment of the United States to democracy? And what do these actions signal to the Arab street about democratic values and their relation to US strategic interests? Washington’s claim that stability and democracy are two sides of the same coin has left the Arab street questioning US commitment to democracy – and ultimately the value of democracy that they have yet to see.

US Secretary of State John Kerry stated in Cairo in November 2013 that the “interim government’s commitment to the roadmap that will move Egypt forward on an inclusive path to democracy and to economic stability”. Kerry went further, stating that “it is in everyone’s interest that Egypt see a transition, live a transition, that results in a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression and assembly, the ability to participate in civil society, as well as in religious freedom”.

The roadmap to transition and democracy included holding a national referendum on an amended constitution, holding parliamentary and then presidential elections within six months of the referendum.

Inside Egypt – Can harsh sentences bring stability?

The aid suspension was meant to be temporary, with reinstatement of aid coming when the interim government and the Egyptian military took steps toward restoring democracy. Interim government policies have arguably made very little, if any, progress toward democratic objectives and benchmarks. In fact, the government’s process has proceeded through three phases, and at each phase, has undercut democracy.

Phase one was media control. The undercutting of democracy began the day after the military’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.

Soon after the constitution was suspended on July 3 security forces preemptively closed down all Islamist broadcast outlets and raided the office of Al-Jazeera’s Egypt affiliate in a crackdown that led to the subsequent detention of several journalists.

The second was the elimination of opposition. Immediately after Morsi’s ouster, prosecutors sought the arrest of hundreds of Brotherhood officials. This was followed by the most violent crackdown in Egyptian history, including last August’s violent clearing of sit-ins that led to more than 1,000 civilian deaths. In the last few weeks, 720 death sentences were issued in sham trials that lasted mere minutes. The mass death sentences come in the aftermath of the Brotherhood being banned, having its assets seized, and being declared a terrorist organisation.

But the death sentences mark a new era in the regime’s attempt to eradicate the group, its adherents and sympathisers. Additionally, more than 17,000 political prisoners, mostly Brotherhood members or sympathisers, are languishing in Egyptian jails. The Brotherhood has now been effectively paralysed as a political competitor.

The third phase was the silencing of dissent. The intimidation of academics, activists, and protesting college students has continued. American University of Cairo Professor Emad Shahin was charged with conspiring with foreign organisations to undermine Egypt’s national security. Amr Hamzawy, one of Egypt’s most prominent liberal intellectuals, was charged with insulting the judiciary for a tweet in which he criticised a court ruling against three US nonprofits that promote democracy.

On December 18, security forces raided the office of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, confiscated their documents, and arrested six of its staff members, a measure that is meant to intimidate other organisations engaged in similar activities.

The protest law passed last November has led to the arrest and convictions of thousands. The law requires giving the interior ministry three days’ notice before any public meetings or electoral gatherings can be held. Besides the ability to deny applications, violators of this law face up to seven years in prison and fines up to $1,500.

This legislation is not only a method of arresting those who protest or advocate non-violent political action, but also a method of monitoring all political activity. While, the international focus has been on the conviction of Ala Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, thousands of Islamist activists have been detained for being a “threaten to the state”.

Confrontations between security forces and protesters occurred on university campuses throughout Egypt. The authorities have used excessive force, including entering university campuses and shooting at students.

Thirty-eight months after the fall of Mubarak at the hands of a popular revolution that promised institutional reform, justice and dignity, Egypt finds itself further and further away from democratic reform. According to Freedom House’s democracy index, Egypt is either deteriorating or stalling on all measures. Ultimately, justice continues to be elusive in Egypt. Most security officials who faced trial since the January 25 Revolution were acquitted of charges of killing protesters. Police brutality continues and the state security apparatus has grown. Calls for accountability, security sector reform and the purging of the deep state have diminished.

And yet, the US chose to reward Egypt for maintaining its 35-year-old peace treaty with Israel with a limited reinstatement of military aid. Representative Kay Granger, chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign aid stated, “As Egypt continues its transition toward a new democratic government, the United States must work with the government of Egypt and support the Egyptian people.” This decision clears the way for the release of Apache helicopters to Egypt.

However, the prioritising of stability over freedom comes at a great cost. Paying lip service to democracy is not in the strategic interest of the US, for it creates long term instability, insecurity and a future of protest and repression. In a struggling economy, and with Egyptian cash reserves at an all time low, conditions are ripe for the fomenting of radicalism and resentment of the West. When the US is perceived as not committed to democratic norms and values, the trust of the Arab street is lost. 

Egypt is spiraling towards instability, radicalisation and increased state repression. In his first inaugural address, US President Barack Obama stated, “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history”.

It is clear that the current Egyptian regime is on the wrong side of history. On what side will the US find itself?

Dalia Fahmy is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Long Island University, and a member of the Egyptian Rule of Law Association.