Egyptian Repression |Worsens Under New Rule

     WASHINGTON (CN) – As Egypt struggles for stability and to contain extremist forces, experts told members of a House committee Wednesday that the scale of oppression is worse now than during the three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule.
     Unless the country reverses course, the stifling of dissent and its impact on civil society could boost support for extremist elements in the long run, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which would be counterproductive to the fight to contain the group, said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.
     Several expert witnesses who testified during the House Foreign Affairs hearing agreed with his assessment.
     “Egypt is on an uncertain and dangerous trajectory. In short, we should all be deeply concerned about the plight of citizen rights and freedoms, the prospects for long-term stability and the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship itself,” Ambassador Mark Green, president of the International Republican Institute, told the House Foreign Affairs’ Middle East and North Africa subcommittee.
     Green’s non-governmental organization was among those the Egyptian government targeted after the Arab Spring propelled hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the streets in 2011 to topple the Mubarak regime.
     The Egyptian government alleged that the groups used foreign subsidies to destabilize the country. An Egyptian court ordered the closure of a handful of foreign, pro-democracy NGOs in 2013 and convicted 43 NGO employees in absentia, including several of Green’s staff.
     Egypt has recently renewed its crackdown on NGOs, adding to a trend that worries Amy Hawthorne, a representative for the Project on Middle East Democracy.
     The arrest of political prisoners, torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have surged under current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Hawthorne told the subcommittee in her written testimony that Egypt has arrested 40,000 political prisoners since mid-2013.
     Hawthorne’s testimony also noted that Egyptian-American Mohamed Salah Soltan captured the current mood in Egypt in a harrowing account of torture at the hands of Egyptian police. Security forces arrested Soltan at a sit-in at Rabaa Square on August 14, 2013 — the same day Egyptian security forces killed up to 1,000 Egyptians protesting former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.
     “The current environment is fertile ground for radicalization, as many disenfranchised young Egyptians find themselves questioning the ideals of freedom and democracy that they once cherished when they see the free world silent in the face of Sisi’s repression,” Soltan said in Congressional testimony during a hearing on human rights in Egypt in November last year.
     Recent statistics reflecting the current situation are staggering. Hawthorne says 137 Egyptians died from torture in 2015 and that Egyptian security forces carried out 754 extrajudicial killings in 2016 alone. The government has handed down 1,700 death sentences since 2014, and has disappeared 204 people between December 2015 and March 2016, according to Hawthorne.
     In addition, violent attacks by militant groups occur 50 times more often than they did between 2010 and 2012 – before Sisi seized power – she noted.
     Egypt’s current human rights record poses a conundrum for the U.S., which gives Egypt $1.5 billion in military aid per year, making it the second largest recipient of U.S. aid behind Israel.
     Although President Obama halted the flow of funds to the country after Morsi’s overthrow, he restored the aid package last year amid growing concerns about Egypt’s vulnerability to extremist forces, including a burgeoning presence of ISIL in the country.
     Mokhtar Awad, representing the program on extremism at George Washington University, called for political reform in Egypt. But he also stressed that the U.S. should make upgrading its security relationship with Egypt a top priority because the threats facing the country have fundamentally changed.
     “The threat arising from the Arab World is no longer coming from conventional wars, but rather in large part from non-state actors deploying terrorism and asymmetric warfare to destabilize states and hold territory in ungoverned spaces,” he said in his written testimony.
     New threats continue to emerge as Egypt adapts to five years of political upheaval, he said, including threats from ISIL, which is trying to consolidate Islamist militants in the Nile Valley and direct terror attacks on government and Western interests.
     Still, the relative stability of Egypt compared to Libya, Syria and Yemen make it an important country for the U.S. to engage with, Awad added, suggesting that the U.S. should condition its security cooperation and assistance on Egypt’s human rights performance.
     But Hawthorne said in an interview that the passive response from the U.S. to the Egyptian military coup that ousted Morsi, along with the ensuing human rights abuses, has diminished American credibility among Egyptians.
     “We did send a message that we don’t really believe that democracy is valuable for all people,” she said.
     That has been devastating for the country’s youth, Hawthorn noted.
     “There’s an intense sense of disappointment and cynicism,” she said, adding that many youth have retreated and given up, likely as a result of the extensive repression.
     The Sisi regime is now cracking down on all peaceful dissent, going far beyond any legitimate campaign against real terror threats, Hawthorne said.
     “One really needs to ask the question, why is a government that is facing a genuine terrorism threat spending so many resources and time and ambition on cracking down on so many Egyptian youth, even those who supported Sisi coming to power and [are] opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood?” she asked.
     Hawthorne said a small core of young people just coming of age continue to speak out against government abuses and press for human rights, at great personal risk.
     “That little flame is not yet extinguished,” she said.
     Still, most young Egyptians are desperate to leave the country – even those who support Sisi – because they do not see economic opportunity, social mobility or advancement on the horizon, according to Hawthorne.
     “It’s just heartbreaking,” she said.
     Hawthorne fears the prognosis for that “little flame” is not good – Sisi and his government are “going to great lengths” to extinguish it. The Egyptian government views it “as a far bigger threat than the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said.

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