A response to the New York Times

Essam Shiha
Thursday 30 Sep 2021

A recent article in the New York Times on human rights in Egypt and the withholding of military aid fundamentally misconstrues Egypt’s record.

This article is in response to a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, since this needs to be put into a proper perspective. It is important that this reply appears in a national Egyptian newspaper noted for its objectivity, one that neither exhibits patriotic bias nor indulges in a disregard for the facts.

The title of the New York Times article, “US and Egypt Put Improving Egypt’s Human Rights on the Agenda,” which appeared on 16 September, sounds optimistic. It seems to herald a period of Egyptian-US cooperation on this sensitive issue. However, reading further one finds that it has more to do with the negative reactions of Egyptian rights activists and international rights organisations to Washington’s decision to withhold $130 million in military aid to Egypt. 

The article is primarily focused on registering these individuals’ and agencies’ disappointment at a decision that they say fell short of the expectations they had pinned on the Biden administration, given its pledge to put human rights at the centre of its foreign policy, especially with Egypt. 

I will not comment on the article’s reference to me as being “pro-government,” except to say that I have spent half my life and up until the present among the ranks of the opposition. I have never held a government post in my political career. However, I am proud to say that I am pro-Egypt and that I stand among those who defend the steps it has taken to improve human rights. 

On this subject there are facts that cannot be ignored. Among them are the centrality of human rights in the international order and how easily they can be politicised. It is also a fact that there are rights organisations that receive funding from various governments and agencies in order to produce reports that help further their interests. This is part of the international dynamics that even extend to using terrorism as a player in contemporary international relations.

  It is impossible to claim that the state of human rights in Egypt is problem free. The same applies to other nations. No country has reached perfection in the application of human rights standards as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in December 1948. I will not take this occasion to remark on some of the violations that have tainted the US’s own rights record. There is no need for this discussion to turn into a contest assigning blame. 

Instead of the extensive criticisms of the human rights record in Egypt that appeared in the New York Times article, I would have liked the US to join us in monitoring the implementation of the National Strategy for Human Rights that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi recently launched and pledged to implement in Egypt. This is what Egypt expects from the world and especially from the US, which sees itself as the custodian of democratic values. 

It is important to make a specific point clear here. The National Strategy for Human Rights is the fruit of a purely Egyptian drive inspired by principles and values that are deeply ingrained in Egyptian society. Work on this strategy began over a year ago in the framework of ongoing efforts to improve human rights. This was before US President Joe Biden entered the presidential race in the US, putting paid to any claim that the Egyptian Strategy was the result of US pressure. 

If there are doubts about Egypt’s credibility or the strength of its will to improve human rights, they should compel friendly nations to be more supportive and more accurate and objective in their observations as Egypt struggles to overcome challenges and threats that also jeopardise regional and international peace and security. 

 This brings me to another point related to an inconsistency in US policies. The US is in the process of withdrawing from certain areas in the international arena, such as the Middle East, in order to focus more on its confrontation with China and the expansion of worldwide Chinese influence. 

Surely the US would want to strengthen its alliances and strategic partnerships in the areas from which it withdraws in a manner that enables its allies to play a more effective role in the preservation of stability, security and peace in the absence of American power? For Washington to reduce the aid it offers Egypt to fight terrorism and protect the country’s borders is unwise and not what we would have expected from Biden given his lengthy experience of US foreign policy. Biden has spent much of his career as a member and then chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has a major influence on the design, planning and monitoring of US foreign policy. 

Egypt will not use its regional role as a token to barter with over its human rights record, but surely any serious steps it has taken towards improving human rights should have been met with support from Washington, even as monitoring continues in the framework of international agreements and conventions. 

In short, Egypt deserved encouragement from Washington, not punishment by docking a relatively small amount of aid that was nevertheless large in its political significance. I hope Washington revises this decision, making it clear that this is not about looking the other way, but about supporting efforts to promote the democratic values that the US itself champions. 

* The writer is head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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