What's a little state violence and repression between friends?
The US' decision to renew military aid to, and restore its partnership with, Egypt was followed almost immediately by reports of unprecedented state repression in the country.
Rarely does the news cycle provide a combination of stories that so perfectly illustrates the emptiness of Western commitment to democracy in the Middle East.
Following a meeting with Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah el-Sisi earlier this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that the US was finally ready to restore its “historic partnership” with Egypt. Perhaps more significantly, the US released $575 million of the $1.3 billion worth of military aid it had been withholding from Egypt since October last year. The aid had been stymied following the brutal coup led by el-Sisi, which overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood and left hundreds of Egyptians dead.
“I am confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid,” Kerry was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, his use of “we” implicitly equating American interests with that of the Egyptian dictatorship. Kerry also added that the previously suspended shipment of 10 Apache helicopters “will come and that they will come very very soon.”
Amazingly, at the same time, Kerry assured the world that he had “emphasised also our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
Whatever words he had chosen to “emphasise” this must not have made much of an impression on the Egyptian ruling class, because barely a day after Kerry’s visit, the three Al Jazeera journalists who had been arrested as part of the crackdown on the Egyptian opposition had been sentenced to seven years in prison. Their crime? Allegedly conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to bring down the military-backed government by creating made-up reports of civil strife – the evidence for which the prosecution was not even able to produce in court.
Will this denial of the freedom of expression so earnestly “emphasised” by Kerry have any effect on the US government’s decision to renew ties with Egypt and send it a generous package of military support? Given that the Obama administration had carefully avoided labelling Egypt’s coup a coup after it took place – as legally, it would’ve had to cut all aid to the country there and then – probably not.
In all likelihood, neither will the reports coming out about the size, scope and brutality of Egypt’s new police state. The same day of Kerry’s cheery photo-op with el-Sisi, the Guardian reported in brutal detail that up to 400 'disappeared' Egyptians are being detained indefinitely and tortured, far from the prying eyes of the Egyptian legal system. It's part of what Amnesty International has termed “repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.”
Yet, Kerry insisted, el-Sisi “gave me a very strong sense of his commitment to…a re-evaluation of human rights legislation, a re-evaluation of the judicial process.”
Reading the first-hand accounts coming out of Egypt's Aazouli prison, I can't say I have as strong a sense as Kerry about el-Sisi's commitment to human rights:
"The skin on his nose was raw to the bone…There was a cut with the depth of a fingertip on his neck, which came from being beaten with a metal stick. There were two big wounds on his wrists from the hanging. They electrocuted him on his testicles. He said he was threatened with rape and that they used to hang them naked... He asked me if we had had any visits, because they threatened that they would arrest his [female relatives], rape them, film it, and then show them the videos."
This is all on top of the approximately 16,000 un-disappeared political prisoners held by the state, a category which includes student protesters, journalists and even gay men.
To give Kerry credit, he is partly right. These episodes of legal injustice, torture and state repression do certainly demonstrate a commitment to some sort of “re-evaluation of human rights legislation” and “the judicial process” by the Egyptian dictator, though I daresay not in the same way Kerry was thinking.
Other than voicing empty 'concerns' about these developments, however, the US and much of the Western world will likely not lift a finger. With ISIS fighters rapidly overrunning Iraq and already returning it to the bloody chaos of the last decade, the US needs all the allies it can get in the region, vicious police state or no vicious police state.
In any case, the Obama administration has for the most part always been lukewarm toward the concept of an Egyptian revolution. American policymakers assiduously avoiding calling for Egypt’s previous dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to step down at the height of protests three years ago, with Vice President Joe Biden even insisting that he was not a dictator.
The US may well get a short-term gain out of supporting what is now evidently a much crueller dictatorship in Egypt. But it would also pay to remember that it is exactly this kind of hypocrisy and cynicism which gives the ISIS’s of the world the fuel to recruit followers and wage their wars.