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April 6, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1570

Amid U.S., International Criticism Of Human Rights Situation In Egypt, Egyptian State Press Attacks U.S. And Accuses It Of Hypocrisy, While Other Writers Call To Address Human Rights Problem

April 6, 2021 | By Y. Graff
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1570

Introduction

Since the election of Joe Biden as U.S. President, and even prior to it, the Egyptian regime has been concerned about the possible resumption of the policy of the previous Democratic administration, headed by Barack Obama. The Obama administration was accused by the Al-Sisi regime of "turning its back" on Egypt by opposing the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood rule; moreover, it had directed harsh criticism at the Al-Sisi regime for its human rights record.[1] The concerns of the Egyptian regime increased lately, following the publication, on February 26, 2021, of a U.S. intelligence report that held Saudi officials, chief of them Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and which led to the sanctioning of some of these officials. The Egyptian regime fears that this report is indicative of the Biden's administration's future policy on human rights, including in the case of Egypt.[2] These fears are exacerbated further by the ongoing pressure on Egypt from human rights organizations to stop suppressing freedoms in the country,[3] and by the mounting criticism of the UN and EU.[4]

Indeed, Biden and officials in his administration have already voiced no little criticism of the human rights situation in Egypt. In July 2020, during his presidential campaign, Biden tweeted, in response to human rights violations by the Al-Sisi regime, "No more blank checks for Trump’s 'favorite dictator [Al-Sisi].'"[5] In November 2020, Egypt's arrest of human rights activists sparked international outrage, including from Antony Blinken, who has since been appointed U.S. secretary of state,[6] and in January 2021 an Egypt Human Rights Caucus was formed in the U.S. House of Representatives.[7]  In his first phone call with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry on February 23, 2021, Blinken expressed concern about the situation of human rights in Egypt.[8] On March 12, a joint statement was issued by 31 member states of the UN Human Rights Council, including the U.S., deploring the suppression of human rights in Egypt and urging it to release imprisoned  journalists and allow greater freedom of expression and the press.[9] Finally, on March 11, 2021, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price criticized the human rights situation in Egypt and the restriction of freedoms and of civil society, and promised that the U.S. administration would address these issues.[10]

This criticism is also voiced by human rights organizations in Egypt. These have been protesting for years against the Al-Sisi regime's policy of persecuting and arresting political dissidents and anyone who dares to criticize the regime, and even prosecuting them on fabricated charges, such as membership in a terrorist organization or spreading false information. According to these organizations, the Egyptian regime uses the pretext of the fight against terror to suppress all criticism and legitimate opposition. For example, in November 2020, the Egyptian security apparatuses arrested senior members of the Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights organization shortly after the latter met with European ambassadors to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. They were accused of "joining a terrorist organization and spreading false news." Egypt's human rights organizations repeatedly call on the U.S., Europe and the international community to withdraw their support from the Al-Sisi regime and to pressure it to end its human rights violations.[11]

The Egyptian regime, for its part, consistently rejects the criticism of the U.S., the UN and human rights organizations and denounces their "interference" in Egypt's domestic affairs. In November 2020, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Hafez stated that the human rights issue is an internal Egyptian one in which foreign countries have no right to intervene.[12] Another claim repeatedly made by the Al-Sisi regime and its media is that, since Egypt faces unique circumstances and terrorism that threatens to destabilize the country, its human rights situation cannot be judged by Western standards. Al-Sisi himself set out his doctrine in this context in a December 2020 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. In a press conference after the meeting he said: "[We] shoulder a great responsibility to achieve a balance between maintaining security and internal stability, on the one hand, and preserving human rights principles in their comprehensive sense, on the other hand."[13] Hinting at the MB, he added that he must "defend the country against an organization that has been operating in Egypt for 90 years," and that this requires placing some limits on human rights.[14]

The Egyptian regime also claims that the U.S. and the West rely on false and deceptive information they receive from "unreliable sources," meaning the MB and its supporters. In January 2021 Foreign Minister Shoukry urged the Biden administration to assess the human rights situation in Egypt based on reliable information, not based on the allegations of "elements that do not represent the inclinations of the Egyptian people [and] which have an agenda [of their own]."[15] Lately, the Egyptian regime has gone beyond rebuffing the criticism, and has started to attack the U.S. and the West. It stated that they themselves have an appalling record in terms of human rights and racism, and that their criticism of Egypt is therefore misplaced and hypocritical. [16]

Rejection of the Western criticism and accusations against the U.S. and the West have also been evident in Egypt's official and pro-regime press. Articles repeatedly state that the interference of the U.S. and the West in Egypt's internal affairs is unwarranted and disregards the threat of terror it faces. Some claimed that the Biden administration receives false information about the situation in Egypt from the MB, and even that some Democratic Congress members are MB agents seeking to restore the rule of this movement in Egypt. Some articles also stated that the U.S. itself constantly violates human rights around the world and therefore has no right to castigate Egypt.

Other voices in Egypt took a different perspective. Some articles admitted Egypt has a problem in terms of human rights and called on the regime to enact reforms and boost freedoms. This, they said, would improve the situation in Egypt while also improving its image and decreasing the pressure on it.     

It should be mentioned that, so far, the U.S. criticism of the human rights situation in Egypt does not appear to have impacted the strategic military-security cooperation between the two countries. U.S. military aid to Egypt and joint military maneuvers continue as usual.[17]

This report presents the harsh discourse against the U.S. in the Egyptian press in response to the American criticism of the human rights situation in Egypt, as well as articles that called to acknowledge the problem and act to fix it.

Egypt's State Press Rejects Criticism Of Human Rights Situation, Attacks The West

As stated, many articles by pro-regime writers in the Egyptian press  rejected the criticism of Egypt's human rights situation and did not hesitate to direct harsh attacks at the Biden administration.

Senior Pro-Regime Journalist: U.S. Must Assess Egypt's Human Rights Situation In Light Of The Terror Threats It Faces

On January 18, 2021, ahead of Biden's inauguration as president, senior journalist Karam Gabr, head of Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulation, wrote an article clarifying that his country's approach to human rights, which regards them as secondary to considerations of security and stability, will not change. He wrote: "In a September 2016 interview with David Ignatius of the Washington Post, President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi said that, [in the context of human rights],  the U.S. must not view Egypt through an American prism, because it is unfair to disregard Egypt's circumstances, and because Egypt's own outlook  is the fairest one, most cognizant of the internal situation in the country and of the events in the Middle East. Only those who live at the epicenter of the events understand the magnitude of the threats.  [That interview took place] ahead of Trump's ascent [to the White House. But] the position of Egypt and its president has remained constant and unwavering, even though another new president is about to come into office in America… Egypt is the one who best understands its own situation and the political and economic challenges it faces… From Egypt's perspective, the devil that is threatening the security and stability of the region is terrorism, and [Egypt therefore] calls to focus international efforts on the real war, against the armed organizations…

"What have the countries of the region and its peoples gained from the [Arab] Spring, brought to them by the West, which tore many of them apart and cast them into a furnace of civil war? [Only] after the devastation and destruction occurred did the instigators of the tragedy understand their mistake. The Egyptian outlook, presented by President [Al-Sisi] ahead of Trump's ascent to the White House, has not changed, and its principles have not changed with the [arrival] of the new U.S. President, either."[18]

Editor Of Egyptian Daily: Biden Administration Making Political Use Of Human Rights Issue; "Blinken, Sit Quietly In Your Corner And Do Not Tweet About Us"

Criticism of the U.S. was also voiced by Hamdy Rizq, editor of the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily. In an article from March 3, 2021, following the publication of the U.S. intelligence report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and following the phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Shoukry, in which Blinken voiced concern about the human rights situation in Egypt, Rizq accused the U.S. of hypocrisy, and attacked Blinken personally, calling him "the ambassador of American values." He wrote: "The values established by the U.S. founding fathers, such as equality, independence, free competition, etc., have nothing to do with interfering in the internal affairs of independent countries… That is why I am very puzzled, and I am entitled to be puzzled… that the Democrats have established a system of norms [meant] for export that do not reflect the real American [values] and which they impose on the world by means of drones, on the pretext of spreading democracy and human rights… 

"Blinken dear, please explain these values to us, because we do not understand them. Does [the act of] conveying warning messages to Iran through repeated airstrikes on Syrian soil  have anything to do with these values?... Do American assassinations on Iraqi soil have anything to do with them?! Do the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have anything to do with them?! Does the policy of subjugating the Arab countries… have anything to do with these American values?!...

"Honorable Mr. Blinken, perhaps you can circulate a memo [listing] the American values you speak of, so we can study them? Perhaps we can gain something from them  and perhaps you can [actually] spread some good in the world. But, what a shame, [the fact is that] Blinken, the 'ambassador of American values,' is using us [to spread] a deceptive discourse. If American values are meant to be realized by spreading American democracy, let's see what you have achieved in Iraq on the pretext of spreading democracy: it has disintegrated into [a collection of] warring parties. The blood spilled in Iraq is on your hands. For all your values, you did not bat an eyelid [at the bloodshed]. And although you did not [manage to] establish American values [in Iraq], you never apologized to the Iraqis  or to the people of the world and did not spare the lives of innocent people…

"Human rights were a means and a tool of extortion used by former [U.S.] president Obama to pressure capitals far and near.  This is [nothing but] blunt political exploitation of one of the loftiest values. The [U.S.] administration raises this issue with Russia and China whenever it pleases and according to its interests, but remains silent about [human rights violations] when it comes to Israel. Blinken remains silent about human rights when it suits his interests, just as Trump and his administration did; there is no difference between them. U.S. interests take precedence to everything, and human rights can go to hell… [Blinken,] the ambassador of American values, does everything he can to defend human rights when this suits his strategic interests, and uses them to blackmail 'the allies of yesteryear' [i.e., Egypt and Saudi Arabia], so as to fuel his factories with Arab money… The American blackmail spans oceans and is as clear to all as the sun at midday."[19]

Rizq also attacked Blinken in an earlier article, from November 2020, after Blinken responded to the arrest of the members of the Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights organization. As stated above, members of this organization were arrested after they met with European ambassadors to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. In response to this affair Blinken tweeted: "Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights."[20] Rizq replied to his criticism by writing: "It is a crime to voluntarily speak in a condescending manner about an internal Egyptian matter that is being debated in court. It is a crime to influence the court system of a sovereign nation state. [Blinken,] sit quietly in your corner and do not tweet about us. Better tweet about Trump, who accuses you of stealing the elections… The U.S. Democrats make political use of the human rights issue, as though it is a commodity [sold] exclusively by them. [Their behavior] has [now] been exposed in all its ugliness, and they have local agents: a gang of human-rights vendors who sell fake [goods] without a license…"[21]

TV Host Ahmad Mousa: Democratic Congress Members Are Acting To Restore The MB Rule In Egypt

In his column in the Al-Ahram daily, television host Ahmad Moussa, who is close to the Egyptian regime, referred to the establishment of an Egypt Human Rights Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. He claimed that this is a conspiracy against Egypt by U.S. Congress members who seek to bring the MB back into power in Egypt. He wrote: "Despite the problems and division in the U.S. – the doubts cast on the outcome of the presidential election, the raid on the Capitol, the treatment of minorities, which is far from [a shining example of respect for] human rights, and the murders carried out by the American police – some Democratic Congress members [decided to] ignore the internal problems and establish what they called a 'political caucus' focused on Egypt and what they see as its human rights situation. Egypt has become a target for them and for others in some countries of Europe, and everyone can see that their [real] goal is not [to defend] the Egyptian people and its aspirations, but to complete the evil plan which we thwarted in the glorious revolution of June 30, [2013]. The dream of certain Congress members is that the terror organization they support and have [long] supported – the MB – will come back to power in Egypt… That is the wish of some  Democrats and of some [other] people who helped this terrorist gang until it rose to power in 2012, and who were so furious when it fell in 2013 that they denied Egypt military aid and postponed the joint [military] maneuvers at the time.

"All of Egypt's state institutions – [including] the Foreign Ministry, the Parliament, the media and the [Egyptian] Human Rights Council – must join ranks in responding to these systematic campaigns, which are likely to become even more vicious in the coming period. We must respond forcefully and speak to Egypt's friends in the U.S. and Europe, and clarify the truth about the issue of human rights [in this country]. What the state has done to promote [human rights] in the poor areas, and in the domains of healthcare, education and distressed populations… highlights its strict respect for the right to life. These fake [American] caucuses are interested only in the human rights of terror organizations and murderers… and we will not remain silent [over this]. We will fight anyone who makes a pact with the terrorists, in the U.S. or anywhere else…"[22]

Spokesperson Of Egypt's House Of Representatives: The U.S. Touts Itself As The Land Of Freedom And Democracy, But That Is An Illusion And A Deception

In an article in the daily Al-Watan, Salah Hasaballah, the media spokesperson of Egypt's House of Representatives (the lower house of parliament), rejected the statement issued by member states of the UN Human Rights Council, including the U.S., condemning the human rights situation in Egypt. He wrote: "It was with amazement and deep disgust that I examined the statement issued by 31 countries – [namely] European countries, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand – expressing their concern over human rights violations in Egypt… Let me refute [their claims] and provide an informed response to them… First, let us discuss human rights record of some of the countries that signed the statement and are giving Egypt advice… Let's begin with the U.S., which touts itself as the 'land of the free' and  'the beacon of democracy.' This is an illusion intended to deceive people and the world, for everyone knows that religious and race-based extremism is constantly on the rise in the U.S… America also has the worst record in the world in terms of gun violence…

"Second, I was astonished by the statements of Ms. Kirsti Kauppi, Finland's representative to the UN [Office in Geneva], who read out the [Human Rights Council's] statement, which claims that  Egypt violates the rights of homosexuals… This shows that these honorable gentlemen know nothing about Egypt and its people and that their statements are nothing but a bunch of words on paper. Sirs, Egypt is the land of Al-Azhar and the Church, and it opposes and rejects out of hand even [the idea of] talking about this loathsome issue [of homosexuality]…

"Third, as for the claim that [Egypt] uses the counterterrorism law to restrict freedoms and arrest activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians: We would thank you to name even five such people, for these are nonsensical and groundless claims that have nothing to do with reality. Remember that Egypt is fighting terror on behalf of the entire world and is paying in the blood of its sons, [its] soldiers, police officers and civilians, to defend all of mankind, of which you are a part. You tasted the bitter taste of terror when bombings and attacks took place in your capitals – so much so that you yourselves advanced the idea that there is no room for talk about human rights when national security is at stake…"[23]

Egyptian Journalists, Officials, Political Activists Call To Admit The Need For Change And For More Freedom

Conversely, more independent writers, including some identified with the Egyptian regime, admitted that Egypt has a problem in terms of human and civil rights, and called to fix it, in order to ease the U.S. and Western pressure on Egypt, but mainly because this is the right thing to do.

Egyptian MP And Newspaper Editor: We Must Fix Our Human Rights Situation Of Our Own Initiative

'Emad Al-Din Hussein, member of the Egyptian Senate (the upper house of parliament) and editor of the independent daily Al-Shurouq, was early to address the Egyptian concerns regarding the possible position of the Biden administration on the issue of Egypt's human rights situation. In a December 2020 article he called to acknowledge the need for improvement on this front, in order to keep it from being used as ammunition against Egypt, among other reasons.  He wrote: "In principle, are there human rights problems in Egypt? The answer is yes, or course there are. Another question: Are some of the world's countries taking advantage of this, for political reasons? The answer is yes, of course they are… The human rights issue has become a diplomatic weapon that many countries, especially the U.S. and some countries in Europe, frequently use against many other countries… But the important point in this context is that we Egyptians must address this issue, not out of fear of the West but because that is the right thing to do… I am not pretending to be the font of all wisdom. I [also] know that many Western countries are using the issues of freedoms and human rights to lie in wait for us. Nevertheless, we must admit that we frequently provide them with opportunities to harm us… I would like our human rights record to be without blemish, so it cannot be used against us abroad. We must review our policy in this context, so that it does not become a sword over Egypt's neck and overshadow all [our] tangible achievements."[24] 

In another article, published in the context of the anniversary of Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution, Hussein made a bolder call for boosting freedoms in Egypt. He wrote: "The January 25 revolution had high hopes and grand goals, especially in terms of democracy and freedoms, but most of them remain unrealized… The June 30, [2013] revolution [i.e., Al-Sisi's ouster of the MB regime] corrected some of the mistakes of the January [2011 revolution]. But there is [still] urgent need for more freedom and more active participation of the civil forces and parties, so that society will be able to confront any dark force that tries to take it back to the past."[25]

In a third article, against the backdrop of the tension in Egypt-U.S. relations following the phone call between Blinken and Shoukry, 'Emad Al-Din Hussein wrote that "Egypt must change its approach to the issue of human rights, not in order to appease the U.S. but because this is what the Egyptian people deserves, and so that we do not constantly find ourselves in the dock."[26]   

Al-Masri Al-Yawm Columnist: Fighting Terror And Preserving Human Rights Are Not Mutually Exclusive

'Amr Al-Shobaki, a columnist in the Egyptian Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, likewise wrote that Egypt can do more to improve its human rights record, and rejected the regime's position that security takes precedence to human rights. He wrote: "The situation of human rights [in Egypt] requires examination, regardless of any foreign criticism. This must be given top priority, because Egypt can do a lot [to improve] its human rights situation, and thereby improve its image abroad and apply its soft power in [the spheres of] culture, the press and the media, for minimum cost. [But] this will happen only if we face all [our] mistakes in the domains of freedom of speech and human rights…

"Egypt can deal with all the foreign interference in its internal affairs and the criticism against it, not all of which is well-meant, by enacting human rights reforms whose cost is not too high. This will pave the way to forming a new mental image [of Egypt] as a developed and progressive country that respects the economic and political rights of its citizens. It will [also] strengthen national unity and [enable Egypt] to confront terrorism while preserving the collective dignity [of its citizens, a principle] that is an authentic part of our culture and basic values, regardless of what is said in the West… Obviously, the war on terror, and the presence of extremist and inciting forces, still pose a challenge for the enacting of democracy and the adoption of human rights in Egypt. [We] must draw a distinction between opposing democracy  and human rights – which are supreme values that cannot be denied – and giving precedence to fighting terror and attaining economic development without disregarding the values of human rights…"[27] 

Egyptian Political Activist: Open Up The Public Sphere, Allow Freedom Of Expression And Opinion

Writing in the independent daily Al-Shurouq, Egyptian political activist George Ishaq welcomed the release from prison of the academic and activist Dr. Hazem Husni, but said that this is just one small step and that many more are needed in order to open up Egypt's public sphere. He too urged the regime to do this of its own accord, not in response to U.S. pressure. He wrote: "Freedom of opinion and expression involves two complementary rights: the freedom to have an opinion and the freedom to express it. It is impossible to separate the two or to enjoy one without the other… Can we, at this stage of  our country's history, implement these norms, open up the public sphere [and let] anyone who wishes to express an opinion do so without being convicted and jailed for it? Because this contravenes the [Egyptian] constitution and international norms…

"According to international conventions, complete freedom of opinion and expression requires recognizing the public's right to stage peaceful protests and to have access to transparent information, so as to prevent the spread of disinformation. The leaders must listen carefully to the ideas of the people and study them in depth, without condescension, if they contain constructive criticism that benefits the state.  Dr. Hazem Husni, university lecturer, was recently released [from prison]. This news gladdened many and gave them hope that we will soon witness the release of every [prisoner of] conscience, for this gives the young people hope for a better future… We should not wait for one U.S. president to replace another in order to [start] believing in freedom of opinion and thought…  Rather, we must release those who have been jailed for [expressing] an opinion regardless of external pressure, because the entire world is extremely interested today in [issues of] human rights..."[28]  

*Y. Graff, a veteran scholar of the Arab world with extensive knowledge of the Arab media, who at MEMRI headed the research focus on Egypt for the past decade, passed away suddenly on March 27, 2021 at the age of 37. His last report is being published posthumously.

To see more of Y. Graff's work, click here.

 

[1] It should be mentioned that the MB welcomed Biden's election and urged him to "reexamine the policy of supporting dictatorships," referring inter alia to the Al-Sisi regime. Ikhwanonline.com, November 7, 2020.

[2] This fear was voiced by Mustafa Bakri, an Egyptian MP and editor of the weekly Al-Usbou', who is close to the Al-Sisi regime. He tweeted: "[By displaying] Arab solidarity with Saudi Arabia we protect ourselves, the nation state and Arab national security. Biden released a test balloon to pave the way for interfering in our affairs and imposing the American value system on our Arab and Islamic states. Twitter.com/BakryMP, February 2, 2021. 

[3] On the eve of the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Commission on February 22, 2021, more than 100 human rights organizations from around the world sent an open letter to foreign ministers urging the establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Egypt. Hrw.org, February 9, 2021.

[4] In December 2020 the European Parliament called on its member states to review their relations with Egypt in light of its human rights violations, and demanded to consider imposing sanctions on Egyptian officials involved in these violations. Europarl.europa.eu, December 18, 2020.

[5] Twitter.com/JoeBiden, July 12, 2020.

[6] Twitter.com/ABlinken, November 20, 2020.

[7] Beyer.house.gov, January 25, 2021.

[8] Raialyoum,com, February 23, 2021.

[9] Geneva.usmission.gov, March 12, 2021.

[10] State.gov, March 11, 2021.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 22, 2020, November 26, 2020, December 1, 2020, December 2, 2020, January 24, 2021. Madamasr.com, November 20, 2020.

[12] Gate.ahram.org.eg, November 21, 2020.

[13] Egypttoday.com, December 7, 2020.

[14] Rassd.com, December 7, 2021.

[15] Gate.ahram.org.eg, January 11, 2021. In response to the UN Human Rights Council's statement, the Egyptian parliament claimed, in a similar vein, that the accusations against Egypt were based on statements by the MB. Gate.ahram.org.eg, March 15, 2021.

[16] For example, the Egyptian delegation to the UN Human Rights Council issued a harsh statement claiming that the states condemning Egypt  were themselves guilty of violating human rights, limiting freedom of expression and employing racism against Muslims and non-whites. Akhbarak.net, March 18, 2021.

[17] In a phone call with Shoukry, Blinken  stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries in the domains of security and the fight against terror. In February 2021 the U.S. approved a possible $197 million sale of missiles to Egypt, and in March  the two countries held joint naval maneuvers in the Red Sea. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 25, 2021; Gate.ahram.org.eg, March 18, 2021.

[18] Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 18, 2021.

[19] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 3, 2021.

[20] Twitter.com/ABlinken, November 20, 2020.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 24, 2020.

[22] Gate.ahram.org.eg, January 29, 2021.

[23] Al-Watan (Egypt), March 14, 2021.

[24] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), December 6, 2020.

[25] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), February 1, 2021.

[26] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), February 26, 2020.

[27] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 1, 2020.

[28] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), March 3, 2021.

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