How the U.S. Undermines Its Ability to Promote Human Rights in Egypt

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 11:  A protester is seen during a demonstration demanding the release of imprisoned journalists, in f
CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 11: A protester is seen during a demonstration demanding the release of imprisoned journalists, in front the Press Union building in Cairo, Egypt on February 11, 2016. (Photo by Ragy Maged/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall deserves praise for her speech in Cairo on February 10, where she simply told the truth about the disturbing situation in President Sisi's Egypt.

Instead of the wishful thinking of Secretary Kerry, who seems unable to talk about Egypt without referring to an illusory "transition to democracy," Sewall noted the economic, security, and political challenges facing Egypt. She had the courage to make the case to her hosts that the way to meet the challenges facing Egyptian society is through tolerance, inclusiveness, and respect for universal human rights.

She said frankly, "we are deeply concerned about the suppression of civil liberties, including societal and government restrictions on freedoms of expression and the press and the freedom of assembly and association... and academic freedom."

She also noted that human rights violations fuel the grievances on which terrorism and violent extremism feed: "When people are tortured, when nonviolent protestors are shot and arrested, it suggests there is no peaceful avenue to express sincere differences. That is how dissidents become terrorists, how democracies erode, how economies wither. These are the lessons of history all nations bear in mind."

These are appropriately forthright words. They are also consistent with the U.S. government's theoretical new approach to dealing with the threat of terrorism, the countering violent extremism (CVE) initiative championed by President Obama and other senior administration officials over the last year.

The United States undermines the credibility of the comprehensive, preventive approach to countering terrorism it is seeking to promote when it fails to challenge its close allies with poor human rights records, like Egypt, to put an end to their repression and human rights violations, which are harmful to multilateral efforts to combat terrorism.

For example, on February 9 in Washington, D.C., Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry claimed that Egypt "continues to play a positive and a productive role in the various efforts, international efforts, underway to eradicate this terrorist threat." This is false. As Under Secretary Sewall explained in Cairo, compromising universal values and abusing the powers of the state undermines multilateral efforts to combat terrorism. Secretary Kerry, who was standing next to Shoukry while he made his remarks, offered no pushback and made no reference to Egypt's human rights violations in his own remarks.

Furthermore, on the day that Under Secretary Sewall spoke in Cairo news emerged that the Obama Administration removed human rights conditions from its budget request to Congress for foreign assistance to Egypt.

This is mixed messaging. Under Secretary Sewall presented the administration's policies clearly and firmly in Cairo, but her message is undercut by her superiors' actions. Egyptian officials will listen to Secretary Kerry's emollient platitudes about "democratic transition," and take the omission of human rights conditions from the budget as a political gain.

From time to time, U.S. government officials like to tell human rights advocates that the United States does not have much influence in promoting human rights in Egypt. These contradictory official statements and actions, which happened to coincide in time, demonstrate why. Too often U.S. officials willfully undermine their own capacity to promote essential human rights progress. By failing to lead on human rights the U.S. government is harming its own interests in a strong, secure, democratic Egypt that guarantees the rights and freedoms of all its people.