Take a thorough look at human rights abuses in Egypt

Though it is perhaps the most high-profile abuse of power against civil society, the NGO case is only part of Egypt’s attack on human rights and democracy activists. It’s a crackdown that is epitomized by a frightening proposed piece of legislation severely restricting how NGOs will be able to operate. That legislation is likely to become law soon. In addition, widespread attacks on the media and the independence of the judiciary are increasing. My reports from March and May of this year describe attacks on Egyptian civil society and detail steps the U.S. government ought to do about them.

As subcommittee members hear from witnesses facing the consequences of these abuses, I hope they’ll pose a series of questions about what the administration should do to turn the tide in Egypt.  For example, instead of Secretary Kerry’s muted response to last week’s verdicts that failed to mention any consequences for the ruling, should the United States condemn the politically motivated verdicts and call on Egypt to pardon the 43 NGO workers? Should the United States increase support to independent civil society activists in Egypt, especially those working to promote human rights and basic freedoms? Should the United States announce a suspension of any funding to the Morsi government until it commits to promoting a democratic transition there?

These are among the tough questions that must be addressed. The United States’ current strategy is clearly not working.  In fact, the U.S. appears to be backsliding to the Mubarak-era posture on efforts to promote human rights in Egypt.

For example, on May 10, Secretary Kerry quietly waived human rights requirements on military funding to Egypt. Unlike last year, when the conditions were also waived by the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry made no public statement criticizing the Egyptian government’s failure to comply with human rights conditions. He also failed to explain – to the American people and Egyptians – why, despite that glaring problem, the United States was waiving the requirements. It’s reported that the State Department told some members of Congress of the decision, but it did not reveal the decision publicly. Congress will undoubtedly ask those testifying tomorrow what harm such a misstep will cause to the relationship between U.S.-based NGOs and Egyptians to advance democracy and human rights. The subcommittee should also consider inviting the administration to testify about how they plan to address these challenges and about the rationale behind releasing aid to Egypt under such circumstances.

Tomorrow’s hearing is an opportunity for Congress, advised by testimony from NGO witnesses, to lay out a vision for the administration’s next steps in Egypt.  I hope the administration will be listening to hear about all that the current approach has cost not only the 19 Americans convicted in this most recent show trial, but all NGOs working in Egypt.  Many on the ground there have been waiting for this moment and for the United States to demonstrate its intent to chart a new course and abandon its long support for the status quo.
Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program

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