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Last week, the US State Department issued a decision to resume foreign aid to Egypt. The aid was originally withheld to determine if the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi was a military coup. Until Egypt could show it was making progress toward a democratic transition, the US was required by law to withhold aid.
Despite grave human rights violations in Egypt over the past nine months, the Obama administration’s decision to resume aid is further evidence of Obama’s return to the failed Middle East policy of the 1980s and 1990s when human rights was an afterthought.Since Morsi’s deposal in July last year, an estimated 23,000 Egyptians languish in detention centers. While some committed serious crimes of violence, the vast majority are average Egyptians rounded up merely for opposing the deposal of Morsi. The few that have been formally charged are being tried and sentenced to death in sham trials that make a mockery of the Egyptian justice system. An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including its spiritual leader Mohamed Badie, to death in another troubling mass trial.
Caught in the mass crackdown are civil society leaders, including three youth leaders who played key roles in Egypt’s Jan 25 uprising. Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, and Alaa Abdel Fataah were arrested for supporting protests in violation of a new anti-protest law aimed to quash political dissent. Douma and Maher were sentenced to three years in jail while Abdel Fataah still awaits trial. Just this week, a judge banned the April 6th youth-led movement for tarnishing Egypt’s image through its dissident acts. Such developments are troubling signs of the return of Mubarak-era authoritarianism.
And yet, the Obama administration flouts US law and international human rights norms by continuing aid to Egypt. The likely explanation is the red herring that posits having to choose between countering terrorism and defending human rights.
Since taking office, Obama has been loath to overtly support civil society or democracy promotion programs in Egypt. At first, his strategy appeared to be based on a pragmatic belief that the US does more harm when it tries to do good in the Middle East. But a closer look reveals that Obama is continuing America’s long standing Middle East policy that prioritizes counterterrorism efforts in foreign aid decisions, regardless of a regimes’ human rights record. This policy is no less flawed now than it was during the Mubarak-era.
To be sure, domestic terrorism has been a real concern in the US. Under Obama’s watch, two attempted terrorist plots – the Christmas Day bomber and the Times Square bomber – exposed serious flaws in America’s global counterterror efforts. Although both perpetrators came from abroad where they had been trained by violent extremist groups to conduct an attack on US soil, the US government detected neither. Due to sheer luck, their explosive devices malfunctioned without hurting anyone.
These cases exposed a breakdown in domestic counterterrorism enforcement and major intelligence failures – arguably the same reason the September 11th attacks blindsided law enforcement. To salvage its intelligence gathering capabilities to prevent another political embarrassment, not to mention a terrorist attack, the Obama administration increasingly relied on its allies abroad. Cooperation from countries with known terrorist groups became more crucial. This meant looking away as authoritarian regimes engaged in various techniques to quash civil society, a free press, and violate human rights.
But the Arab Uprisings caught the Obama administration flat-footed. Not only did the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain finally rise up against brutal regimes, they did it despite the US’s financial and political support of their governments. The torture unleashed on terrorism suspects the CIA renditioned to Egyptian dungeons was the same torture the Egyptians had long persevered and rebelled against on Jan 25, 2011. US-made weapons sold to Egypt’s government were the same ones used on unarmed protesters calling for their fundamental human rights.In the face of a mass pro-democracy movement sweeping the region, the Obama administration had no choice but to openly support the people. But it soon became apparent that such support was nothing more than political hedging with little regard for the people’s demands for political rights. Whether it was the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, or General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, the Obama administration sought to retain ties with Egypt even at the cost of Egyptian human rights.
As America uses counterterrorism to justify overlooking human rights abuses, Egypt’s regime justifies its human rights abuses as legitimate counterterrorism. America’s policies abroad legitimizes Egypt’s policies at home.
Instead of keeping America safer, this tried and failed policy only radicalizes more people into violent groups that fight the same governments the US funds and arms. In effect, the US becomes a party to an otherwise domestic conflict and a fair target in the eyes of the violent extremists. All the while, human rights activists, labor activists, and political opposition groups are swept up in mass crackdowns under the guise of national security aimed at quashing domestic political dissent.
Continuing aid unconditionally to regimes that violate their citizens’ human rights not only contradicts fundamental American values, but it makes the world a more dangerous place for everyone.