On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in Cairo following his meetings with Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry and Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Although bi-ateral ties had been strained by the military removal of the former elected President, Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and by the widespread violations of human rights and escalation in political violence that followed, Secretary Kerry arrived in Cairo announcing that the administration had lifted its hold on $650 million of foreign military assistance suspended last year.
Secretary Kerry's positive tone towards his Egyptian hosts indicated that the administration desires to resume close cooperation with the Egyptian authorities following the recent election. During his speech, he played down any concerns that Congress might attach human rights and democracy related conditions to subsequent military assistance, stressing repeatedly that he was "confident... absolutely confident... very confident" that the full aid package would be restored.
These remarks gave every indication that the United States government is giving its backing to the Egyptian government's highly questionable version of recent events. The Egyptian foreign minister spoke of Egypt making progress along a roadmap to democratic transition. Rather than correcting him, Secretary Kerry spoke of Egypt's "historic election" -- an election that international election monitors had reported was far from free or fair. While he spoke in general terms about the importance of human rights and the rule of law, he did not point to the glaring examples taking place before his eyes where Egypt is failing to live up to these standards.
The timing of Secretary Kerry's remarks was unfortunate, to say the least. While he was in Cairo, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned these verdicts as "obscene, and a complete travesty of justice."
On the same day police and plain clothes security forces arrested dozens of activists near the scene of a protest against the draconian anti-protest laws. The detainees include human rights defender, Yara Sallam and over 20 other mainly young people who were doing nothing other than to exercise their right to non-violent peaceful assembly.
It is of particular concern that Ms. Sallam appears to have been targeted for detention because she is an employee of the independent human rights organization, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). Police and security officers interrogated Ms. Sallam about the work of EIPR after her detention and a friend with whom she was walking near the protest was not detained.
The day after Kerry's remarks, a court sentenced international journalists working for the Al-Jazeera English TV channel to lengthy prison terms on vague charges of "spreading false news" and supporting terrorism in a trial that was also marked by egregious procedural irregularities.
While Secretary Kerry mentioned that he had raised this and other cases with President Sisi and was hopeful that the Egyptian leader would make some concessions on human rights issues after their talks, today Sisi made clear that he would not act to pardon or grant clemency in this or other cases decided by the judiciary.
It may be true that the United States has certain vital interests that require cooperation with the Egyptian government. However, Secretary Kerry said that the United States wishes to see Egypt and its people succeed. This simply will not happen if the administration continues to turn a blind eye to widespread serious violations of human rights. Egypt cannot be stable partner as long as its government pursues policies that disregard human rights and international standards.
Secretary Kerry failing to speak out clearly against violations of human rights in Egypt fails to advance American interests and only adds to our nation's soiled reputation as a defender of human rights.