(L-r) Michele Dunne, Joyce Karam, Khalil Jahshan, Bahey Eldin Hassan, Moataz El-Fegiery and Tom Malinowski. [Staff Photo Phil Pasquini].
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2017, pp. 61
Five days before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the White House, the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) co-hosted a March 30 panel on the topic “Egypt and the United States under the Trump Administration” at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
In his opening remarks, ACW’s executive director Khalil Jahshan noted that democracy is a central issue to both ACW and POMED, and that the latest annual survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha revealed that 80 percent of Egyptians believe democracy is the best form of government.
POMED executive director Stephen McInerney reminded the audience that President el-Sisi’s visit was the first of an Egyptian president to the White House since former President Barack Obama welcomed then-President Hosni Mubarak in August of 2009. When Trump was running for president, he called Sisi “a fantastic guy” and praised his iron-fisted methods, saying, “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”
Al-Hayat Washington bureau chief Joyce Karam introduced the panelists and moderated the 90-minute discussion.
Paris-based Bahey Eldin Hassan, co-founder and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, delineated five points on the present situation in Egypt under President el-Sisi:
- The lack of justice and absence of accountability for the massive human rights abuses in Egypt, including mass killings, systematic torture of convicts and forced disappearances.
- The eradication of all forms of peaceful activism, such as social and cultural activities, and even raiding downtown coffee shops where young people meet. “Such policy of zero tolerance toward peaceful activities renders the stability of Egypt as an impossibility,” he argued.
- A huge gap in the political, cultural and social values between President el-Sisi and the younger generation.
- The erosion of major state institutions, such as the parliament and judiciary.
- The rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Sinai as ISIS sets up checkpoints at al-Arish, which is only 90 miles from the Suez Canal. Without a major increase in security, Hassan warned, “Sinai may very well become Egypt’s Mosul.”
Elaborating on the subject of Egypt’s dismal human rights record, London-based Moataz El-Fegiery, protection coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at Front Line Defenders, reported that there are now around 60,000 political prisoners, including journalists, human rights activists and “others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Democracy activists and human rights defenders in Egypt now are under constant threat of being charged with treason “or worse,” he said.
Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, pivoted to the subject of U.S. military aid to Egypt. “There are a lot of American-provided F-16s in Egypt that show up at military parades and celebrations,” he noted, “but I have not seen any of them show up in the sky over Mosul, where Americans and our coalition partners are actually fighting a common enemy.”
Turning to the subject of Cairo’s relationship with Washington, Michele Dunne, director and senior fellow at the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that Egypt’s internal affairs are the reason for the cooling of American-Egyptian relations going back to the George W. Bush presidency.
“Both Bush and Obama became disillusioned because they saw that the internal problems in Egypt make it a very problematic ally for the United States,” she stated. “Human rights abuses have driven young people to despair and radicalization, thereby fueling terrorism inside of Egypt, which is a very serious problem that cannot be denied."
On the subject of the economy, Dunne warned, “We’re looking at a serious economic situation in Egypt, including a high unemployment rate—30 percent among young people and an even higher rate for university graduates.” With respect to generating jobs, she added, “We see that President Sisi has adopted a strategy that is not aimed at generating jobs for Egyptians, that is not aimed at human development. Instead he has put billions of dollars into projects led by the military.”
Human rights abuses coupled with a deteriorating economy is “a recipe for very serious instability” in this country of 94 million that is a bridge between Africa and Asia. “Will President Trump unconditionally support Egypt?" Dunne wondered.