IRI Board Member Richard Williamson urges Support for Egypt’s Democratic Activists

Turning a Blind Eye to Egypt
The American
By Ambassador Richard S. Williamson

Since President Obama’s Cairo speech, his administration has been disturbingly quiet in word and deed about the Egyptian government’s repression of democracy.

For generations, America has been the world’s shining city on the hill for freedom and human rights. We have provided light, encouragement, and support for voiceless victims of human rights abuse and those seeking to join the march of freedom. Sadly, the light has dimmed, the voice has softened, and the support has shrunk under President Obama. This has not gone unnoticed.

Cyber dissident Ahed Al-Hendi has said, “Previously, in Syria, when a single dissident was arrested … at the very least the White House would condemn it. Under the Obama administration, nothing.”

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of The Voice of Democracy in Malaysia, said, “Our concern is that the Obama administration is perceived to be softening on human rights … once you give a perception that you are softening on human rights, then you are strengthening the hands of autocrats to punish dissidents throughout the world.”

An important example of the dangerous consequences of America’s diminished support for human rights and democracy is in Egypt, an important ally in the Middle East. President Obama is to be commended for his personal efforts and those of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to advance the Middle East peace process. It is a devilishly difficult problem. If progress is made it can benefit the parties, the region, and the world. But if, simultaneously, U.S. policy is contributing to a weaker and less stable Egypt, any progress in the region will be sorely undermined.

On June 9, 2009, President Obama gave a much anticipated speech in Cairo. While it avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, it did express support for democracy in the Middle East. Sadly, since then, in rhetoric and deed, President Obama has failed to clearly champion these universal values in Egypt or elsewhere in the region.

Elections for Egypt’s Shoura Council (upper house) held in June 2010 were marred by extremely low voter turnout and disturbing reports that security forces prevented some voters and Egyptian domestic monitoring groups from entering polling stations. There also were reports of sporadic violence, a problem that plagued Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2006.

Elections for Egypt’s People’s Assembly (lower house), scheduled for November 2010, will set the tone for next year’s presidential election. With President Hosni Mubarak old and ailing, these elections are pivotal to the country’s political future.

Egyptian domestic monitoring groups preparing for the November parliamentary elections report increasing harassment from security services. The transfer of elections supervision from Egypt’s independent judiciary to a ruling-party controlled Supreme Election Commission is of particular concern for the political opposition. The Egyptian government’s renewal of the emergency law allows broad arrest powers and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. This law is undermining organization and campaign efforts by the opposition and monitors.

It appears that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is intent on preventing a repeat of the 2006 parliamentary elections, when candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood fared well. But broad interference by the Egyptian government also means that secular opposition, such as the Reform and Development Party led by former President Anwar Sadat’s nephew, has been denied registration as a political party.

The return to Egypt of former International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammed El Baradei and talk of his potential candidacy for president galvanized Egyptian civil society and political opposition against a de facto passing of the presidency to Mubarak’s son Gamal. Earlier this year, El Baradei established the National Association of Change, a broad-based civil society movement that is seeking three constitutional reforms in order to provide an environment for free elections. Among other things, they seek a return to judicial supervision of elections.

Due to the Egyptian government’s refusal to address these reforms, El Baradei is calling for a boycott of the People’s Assembly elections to expose the “sham democracy” of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Early this summer Khaled Said, a 28-year-old blogger who, according to the newspaper Al Ahram, had “disseminated mobile video footage showing police officers at Sidi Gaber Police Station distributing the profits from a drugs raid among themselves,” was beaten to death by two police officers outside an internet café in Alexandria.

In the face of these serious challenges to a more stable Egypt, the Obama administration has not followed through on the president’s Cairo speech. Indeed funds to support human rights and democracy promotion in Egypt have significantly decreased.

Due to a policy shift by the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will not provide assistance to Egyptian and international organizations working in Egypt unless they are registered with and approved by the government of Egypt. This shift undermines democracy and human rights organizations including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, since neither is registered, even though both organizations applied to the Egyptian government to be registered back in 2006. NDI and IRI were established, along with the National Endowment for Democracy, by President Ronald Reagan with the bipartisan support of Congress.

In launching his vision for these democracy promotion institutions, President Reagan had given a seminal speech on freedom at Westminster Hall, London. He said:

That is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace … Democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take action to assist the campaign for democracy … The objective I propose is quite simple to state: To foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.

And with minimal support the march of freedom advanced.

Under President George Bush all democracy and human rights assistance, including that given by USAID, had been exempted from Egyptian government sign-off. The 2009 Obama policy change is in conflict with the law set forth in Appropriations Act language which states the “provision of assistance for democracy, human rights and governance … shall not be subject to the prior approval by the government of any foreign country.”

While the Obama administration has said the State Department will continue to provide assistance to unregistered groups, the fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 funding levels are significantly lower than under President Bush. As a result, America’s support for freedom in Egypt has been severely diminished.

Egypt has been a cornerstone for U.S. Middle East policy since the Camp David Accords facilitated by President Jimmy Carter. With an ailing political leadership and an imminent transition, the question is: what kind of ally will Egypt be in 5 or 10 years?

Egypt’s lack of political freedom has created a situation where opposition to the autocratic regime is most effectively represented by the extremist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood. This is not good for the Egyptian people, for long-term stability in the region, or for the United States.

The Middle East peace process and America’s security relationship with Egypt will continue to drive short-term policy considerations. But an investment in human rights and democracy is critical to the long-term welfare of the Egyptian people, to the region’s stability, and to the United States. It will define what type of ally Egypt will be for America for future generations.

Since President Obama’s Cairo speech, his administration has been disturbingly quiet in word and deed about the Egyptian government’s repression of democracy.

Egypt’s human rights defender Saad Eddin Ibrahim has said, “George W. Bush is missed by activists in Cairo and elsewhere who, despite possible misgivings about his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, benefited from his firm stance of democratic progress. During the time he kept up pressure on dictators, there were openings for a democratic opposition to flourish. The current Obama policy seems weak and inconsistent by contrast.”

Dimming the shining city on the hill dishonors our heritage and the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives for the principles, practices, and pledge that make America exceptional. They are our nation’s fabric and our promise for a better world for Egyptians and others throughout the world.

The beacon should be strong and steady, our voice unwavering, and our support generous. Advancing the march of freedom and supporting human rights reflects our better selves and is our responsibility. Americans should expect their government to seek such goals—voiceless victims of human rights abuse and tyranny require it.

Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a principal at Salisbury Strategies, LLP. He has served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, and as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan.

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