WASHINGTON -- Top Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, met with their Egyptian counterparts in Cairo on Sunday for high-level talks, the latest sign that the White House is seeking to move on from its previous criticism of Egypt's autocratic regime.
The meeting came just weeks after the State Department approved the controversial sale to Egypt of a sophisticated, military-grade mobile surveillance system that Egyptian activists fear may be used against the country's citizens.
The talks, called the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, are the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the Arab Spring. President Barack Obama initially welcomed democratic protests in Egypt and criticized the country's military after it ousted controversial Muslim Brotherhood leader and then-President Mohammed Morsi, the nation's first democratically elected president, in a 2013 coup. The administration has since abandoned that position almost entirely.
The sale of the surveillance system is one example of how American security interests have trumped Egyptian democracy activists' complaints about regime excesses. The State Department says that Egypt will only use the equipment on the Egyptian border with war-torn Libya, where a branch of the Islamic State group is mushrooming. But the current Egyptian government sees domestic critics as existential threats at least on par with the extremist group.
With the world's largest Arab nation still reeling from the consequences of the 2013 coup, Egypt's new rulers are cracking down on dissent. And the Arab Spring showed that repressive regimes in the Middle East can and will use U.S.-provided equipment against their own citizens, argued Cole Bockenfeld, the advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
"We may have an agreement that this kind of equipment is for external use only, but of course these security services did -- and can again -- turn it anywhere," Bockenfeld said.
The State Department won't say exactly what the surveillance system will do. The Egyptian Embassy and several defense contractors that make surveillance devices did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Egyptian citizens say that even without additional detail about what spying capabilities their government may gain, the news has them on edge.
"Surveillance equipment worries me in the hands of vindictive, irresponsible actors," said Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian journalist and blogger who spoke to The Huffington Post through an encrypted chat program. "When you give power to men of violence, you're encouraging them to be more violent. When you don't hold people accountable, they act with more impunity."
Such concerns are unlikely to scuttle the deal. Now that the State Department has approved the sale, the transfer of the surveillance system is a fait accompli unless Cairo changes its mind. The next step is a monthslong process that will involve discussions between officials in the two governments and the approval of a military contractor.
The meeting this weekend, the first U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue since 2009, and the surveillance equipment sale are the latest pieces of the Obama administration's effort to mend ties with the Egyptian regime. On March 31, Obama lifted a hold on the transfers of big-ticket weapons systems, including now-delivered F-16 fighter jets and Harpoon missiles, that Egypt had purchased but not received because of U.S. human rights concerns related to the aftermath of the 2013 coup. Days later, Egyptian officials began communicating to U.S. officials that they wanted the surveillance gear, a senior congressional aide told HuffPost.
Lifting the hold was widely interpreted as a sign that Obama was seeking to leave tensions over the coup in the past and develop a closer relationship with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the retired Egyptian general who won an internationally criticized election following the army takeover. Analysts see the approval of the sale as another sign of that ongoing shift.
Kerry's remarks Sunday offered further evidence for that view.
"It’s a great privilege for me to be here, and I’m very pleased to be back in Cairo. And I want to thank President el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Shoukry for their very warm welcome and, most importantly, for the quality of the discussion that we had today and also for the tremendous work that the Egyptian government has done in creating the combined agenda of both security and the economic front as well as all the other issues that were on the table for a very frank, very candid discussion," the secretary of state said.
Asked by The New York Times about Egypt's human rights situation, Kerry added, "There are, obviously, circumstances where we have found reason to have grave concern, and we have expressed it very publicly. I don’t think we’ve shied away from that. But we have multiple issues that we need to work on simultaneously. Egypt remains vital to not just the stability of its own country but obviously engagement and stability in the region as a whole."
As the U.S. and the new regime grow closer, Egyptian civil society activists are nervous about what could happen to their already diminished freedoms.
Many had chosen, like the former computer engineer Eskandar, to leave their jobs and commit themselves to activism when Egypt's revolution erupted in 2011. Now, years after optimistic pro-democracy protests swept the country, el-Sissi rules with an iron fist. Egyptians from across the political spectrum who are considered dissenters have been targeted or locked up. That group includes suspected members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, secular revolutionary activists and members of the press who print news the government deems unflattering.
Eskandar says Egypt's purchase of the American surveillance system may not be a game-changer so much as a boost: The government already closely monitors his private conversations by phone, email and social media like Facebook. His personal life isn’t private anymore -- and he’s far from the only one. He says he knows of revolutionary activists who have been called into state security only to have their recorded, private phone conversations used as blackmail against them.
The Egyptian state "monitors people to control them," Eskandar told HuffPost. "They don't want any leadership to emerge that would threaten them."
The U.S. is well-aware of the situation in Egypt, and officials frequently comment on the Egyptian government's most blatant abuses. But the White House sees engagement with the country as essential nonetheless. Earlier this year, the Obama administration used a national security waiver, a document justifying support to undemocratic regimes on the basis that they are essential to U.S. security, to increase U.S. military support to Egypt to its pre-coup level, about $1.3 billion.
To secure that waiver, the administration was legally required to explain just how undemocratic it believes Egypt is. So this past May, Kerry blasted the country in a report to Congress.
"While Egypt has implemented parts of its 'democracy roadmap,' the overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative," Kerry wrote in an unclassified version of the May 12 report, published in June by The New York Times. "A series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process, and they undermine prospects for democratic governance. Since July 2013, human rights NGOs and civil society activists describe a shrinking space for peaceful dissent, leading some of them to self-censor many of their political activities that could be deemed controversial, or even leave the country. Except in rare instances, police and security forces have not been held accountable for alleged human rights violations."
Kerry's report notes a few positive developments, but it is mostly a list of Egyptian misdeeds, from delays in parliamentary elections to arbitrary killings of demonstrators and the use of torture and rape by the police. The document reflects a country where even the act of peaceful protest -- the fuel of the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak -- has now become illegal. Anyone caught demonstrating without direct permission from Egypt's government risks landing inside a jail cell, caught in a legal system widely slammed as a mockery of justice.
Despite all this, the State Department maintains that the sale of the new surveillance system -- which it had to approve and then notify Congress about -- won't make the situation worse.
“That’s not the intended use. This isn’t anything sinister. This is border security stuff,” a State Department official told HuffPost. “This is the kind of stuff that [the Department of Homeland Security] uses to monitor the border.”
The official noted that the Egyptians will have to allow check-ins from the U.S. government as part of an end-use monitoring agreement. This deal, which is only in its beginning stages, will require the Egyptians to sign a letter committing to whatever monitoring terms the U.S. sets.
“As needed, as warranted, we will work with that country's defense department depending on the system, depending on the particular situation. We may periodically go out to a site where they have a certain product stored and conduct a physical inventory,” the official said.
But U.S.-based experts on the process of end-use monitoring are less optimistic -- particularly when it comes to Egypt.
"The Egyptians have refused to allow regular access, including by U.S. government officials or the independent press, to areas where our military equipment is being used. So Senator Leahy believes the track record is not good,” said an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The senator used his position on an appropriations subcommittee to place limits on providing military aid to the Egyptian government in 2014, and he is an opponent of the national security waiver the Obama administration is now using to provide military support to Cairo.
The surveillance system "may be different, but it depends on where it is used and the assurance of the Egyptian authorities that we have the ability to ensure that it is used for the purposes for which it was provided," the aide added. "It’s a question of whether the Egyptians cooperate in allowing the United States and others to monitor its use."
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who worked on human rights in the Middle East as the State Department's deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, underscored that reliance on Egyptian transparency. She noted that American credibility could be at risk were the Egyptians to violate the terms of their purchase.
"This is American military equipment that the American government funds the purchase of," said Wittes, who is now the director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy. "Even if they were paying cash, we have laws on the books to govern how our U.S.-made equipment is used abroad. If the State Department were to determine that Egypt is using this equipment in violation ... that's a U.S. problem."
The U.S. would usually learn about violations after they have occurred -- therefore already being complicit, in the eyes of the government's critics, even if it were to later take steps to prevent further misuse.
Activists in other Middle Eastern countries have shown that they will blame Western governments or private industry if they provide authoritarian governments with equipment that is misused. BahrainWatch, a civil society organization that tracks abuses by the Bahraini government, joined other human rights groups in February 2013 to file a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development against two European surveillance technology companies that sold their products to Bahrain's internationally condemned government. The OECD slammed one of the companies in findings released this February, saying the U.K. firm Gamma International violated OECD standards by failing to ensure that its spyware products are not used to damage human rights.
Ali Abdulemam, a former prisoner of conscience and member of Bahrain Watch, told HuffPost that information collected through such surveillance technology has enabled Bahraini authorities to bring convictions against activists, with the government saying they discovered suspicious activity through "private sources." In one instance, Abdulemam recalled, the government submitted printouts of a fellow activist's text messages as evidence in court. He added that his own email was hacked and presented in a different court case.
Egyptian activists say they are already resigned to even greater monitoring -- and have little hope that the U.S. will intervene to protect their rights beyond noting abuses publicly as it did in Kerry's report to Congress.
"Besides the few statements from the White House or the State Department, I don't see the U.S. will do much to reign in the Egyptian regime," a leading Egyptian blogger who writes under the pen name The Big Pharaoh told HuffPost. "Honestly, I totally understand their position. The whole region is on fire, and the Egyptian regime, which does have considerable local support, is currently needed to keep Egypt in an acceptable level of stability."
Wittes, the former Obama administration official, said that Washington has little chance of effectively restricting Egyptian behavior. "I don't think there's any American policy decision that would have dissuaded the Egyptian government from the very coercive path that it took in domestic affairs following the military takeover. That was a path that the Egyptian government determined was necessary for what it deemed the existential survival of the Egyptian government and the Egyptian state, and they were going to do that no matter the cost."
The White House has tried to show Egypt that it will not completely embrace el-Sissi's tendencies. It has continued to criticize injustices, and it explained in its March 31 announcement ending the hold on weapons transfers that it hopes to better control the way the gigantic Egypt military aid package -- an annual handout second only to that provided to Israel -- is used.
Still, the impetus to focus on Cairo's domestic actions is growing ever weaker as the U.S. worries about the terror threats Egypt faces from extremists in Libya and an Islamic State-linked insurgency in the Sinai peninsula. That means counterterror and security take precedence once more in the relationship, Wittes explained -- leaving the government broad leeway to decide what it sees as risks, knowing it will have military support to deal with them from Washington and from its loyal backers in the Gulf.
"I am sure the government will mostly use the technology [for] counterterrorism," The Big Pharaoh told HuffPost. "But I also believe that it will be used to spy on dissidents. ... The state can use anything against you if they wanted to bring you down."