It would be far easier to understand Egypt if the trend lines pointed up or down, rather than presenting an immensely complex picture. But consider two groups of issues: relations with Hamas, and respect for human rights.
It was reasonable to assume that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt would be very much more accommodating to Hamas than the Mubarak regime had been–and Hamas so assumed. But in the last week we have seen two striking decisions by the Morsi government and the Egyptian military. First, they have once again refused to allow Hamas to open an office in Cairo. The Jerusalem Post reported as follows:
Egyptian security forces rejected a Muslim Brotherhood request to establish a Hamas office in Cairo after it had left its Damascus headquarters, according to Egyptian security sources quoted by Iraqi paper Azzaman on Tuesday. The security sources were quoted as saying that they put national security considerations first, especially now when Egypt is facing unrest and the new office could lead to further disturbances. The paper also quotes an anonymous security source who said there are three training camps for al-Qaida-linked groups in the northern Sinai.
Here, Egypt is clearly putting security matters ahead of ideological preferences. It is doing the same thing by trying to destroy the smuggling tunnels that link Gaza to Sinai and permit Hamas to import weaponry and to gain tax revenue. Here is part of a Reuters story:
Egyptian forces have flooded smuggling tunnels under the border with the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip in a campaign to shut them down, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said….Reuters reporters saw one tunnel being used to bring in cement and gravel suddenly fill with water on Sunday, sending workers rushing for safety. Locals said two other tunnels were likewise flooded, with Egyptians deliberately pumping in water….An Egyptian security official in the Sinai told Reuters the campaign started five days ago. “We are using water to close the tunnels by raising water from one of the wells,” he said, declining to be named. Dozens of tunnels had been destroyed since last August following the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in a militant attack near the Gaza fence….
All good news. But meanwhile, what’s happening inside Egypt? On the human rights front there is reason to despair, and the chairman of the Egyptian Human Rights Organization, Hafez Abu Seada, has just written in Al Ahram that “As the situation stands, a grim future lays ahead for democratic transformation and human rights in Egypt. There is a legal edifice that fails to furnish solid human rights guarantees and the same type of gross human rights abuses that sparked the revolution are resurfacing with increasing frequency.” Egypt’s new draft constitution “fails to offer the necessary safeguards for human rights. In fact, the drafters of the constitution avoided the term ‘human rights’ altogether.” He continues:
Egyptians affiliated to religions other than Sunni Islam were clearly offended by crucial segments of the new constitution. The three representatives of Egyptian churches withdrew from the Constituent Assembly in protest against articles that would undermine the civil state and pave the way for a theocratic state under the hegemony of a Sunni religious establishment….As for rights violations, the freedom of opinion and expression is under heavy attack. Journalists and media figures critical of the policies of the president and the ruling party are being sued and reported to the public prosecutor in unprecedented numbers. For the first time in Egyptian history, the office of the president has filed suits against journalists on the charge of “insulting the president….”
Abu Seada notes as well that the new constitution “chipped away at the rights of Egyptian women, deleting the stipulation of gender equality that had existed in the 1971 constitution.” But here the real news is even worse: there is an epidemic of sexual harassment and rape in Egypt, Raymond Ibrahim reports. And women who take to the streets to protest publicly are often themselves subject to yet more abuses. As two female journalists based in Cairo, Sophia Jones and Erin Bianco, wrote last June, “it is an everyday psychological and sometimes even physical battle. We open our closets in the morning and debate what to wear to lessen the harassment—as if this would help. Even fully veiled women are harassed on Cairo’s streets.” Lest the assessment seem too gloomy, it was confirmed to me by an American official just last week.
How can we fit all these pieces together? Sadly, by seeing the new regime as an Islamist version of the old Mubarak regime. Concerned with Egypt’s national security interests, unwilling to offend the security forces or to cleanse them, uninterested in human rights, focused on retaining power above all else. No wonder Abu Seada concluded that without significant change “a grim future lays ahead for democratic transformation and human rights in Egypt.”