In Congressional testimony yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry was challenged on administration efforts to abandon human rights in Egypt. As the law reads today, the administration must withhold a certain amount of U.S. aid to Egypt unless it can certify human rights progress, and even the withheld amount can be granted with a “national security waiver,” but the administration wants all connections between human rights and our aid program severed.
Why? Kerry explained that there is a real threat of terrorism and extremism in Egypt. Here is how the Atlantic Council summarized his comments:
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged a deterioration in Egyptian freedoms in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, but defended the administration’s decision to waive human rights conditions on aid to the country. He pointed to Egypt’s strategic importance to the United States, the competition among global players for influence in Cairo, and the difficult security environment there. “There is a major challenge of extremism, bombs that have been going off in Cairo, bombs that have gone off in Sharm al-Sheikh, different challenges.” On Wednesday, he told the Senate Appropriations Committee, “We have to try to work and thread a needle carefully that can balance the various interests that exist.”
This is interesting because it is exactly wrong. There is indeed a terrible threat of extremism and terrorism in Egypt, but Mr. Kerry appears to believe that regime repression is the way to fight it. Kerry acknowledged in his testimony that “We have seen a deterioration over the course of these last months with the arrests of journalists and some civil society personalities.” Does he believe that arresting journalists and “civil society personalities” fights extremism? Does jailing poets and bloggers stop terrorists?
In fact the regime is flailing at every critic because it is failing in the struggle against terrorism and extremism–or indeed is feeding them. Those who said we must ignore human rights violations by the Mubarak regime argued that we should overlook its repression in the name of stability. Then one day, Mubarak was gone in a flash. So much for stability through repression. This regime is considerably more repressive than that of Mubarak, but similarly provides no answers to Egyptians who would like to see their nation change and progress. Mr. Sisi’s Gulf benefactors are becoming tired of excuses offered in place of real economic reform.
Mr. Kerry presumably thinks he is helping Egypt, and Egyptians, with this “terrorism vs. stability” argument. But looking at the growth of disorder and terrorism in the Sinai and the Western Desert, and looking at the situation in the Egyptian heartland, it should be evident that Egypt’s problems will be addressed through jobs and factories and schools, and freedom–not solved in its jails. In fact, the miserable conditions in those jails, the torture and abuse, and the mixing of jihadis and Muslim Brothers and students and journalists, is a perfect formula for spreading extremism.