Egypt crisis: Political manoeuvres and accusations of human rights’ violations

By J Brooks Spector 11 July 2013

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s move to replace Mohamed Morsi’s government and further efforts to quash any opposition to their exertions, the international civil liberties NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has come out verbal guns blazing against the continuing arrests and detentions that have been a part of the military’s takeover. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Despite Egypt’s suspension from the African Union because of the military’s actions, a flood of reporting in the international media on the military’s moves, and now, most recently a report by Human Rights Watch, up until now, the US Government has refrained from using the word “coup” to describe what happened in Egypt – because that would trigger a cut off in American military aid to the current rulers – lessening any leverage the US may have on the Egyptian military, or so the argument goes.

For its part, however, Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork – deputy director for Middle East and North Africa – says of the worsening situation, “Both General al-Sisi and interim President Adli Mansour promised that the political transition process would be inclusive, but these violations of basic political rights will mean the Muslim Brotherhood and others will be shut out of political life.” Stork added, “After a year of protracted struggle between the judiciary and the Muslim Brotherhood, the last thing Egypt needs is the appearance of arbitrary and partisan arrests and prosecutions.”

HRW added that since the military pushed Morsi from power on 3 July, Egyptian authorities have detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders, sealed off its offices and cut the TV signal of the group’s television station. Discussing the military’s detention of the MB’s president and ten of his advisers and closing off their access to the outside world, HRW added, “The military should release the former president and his aides unless prosecutors have evidence that they committed a cognisable crime under Egyptian law. Any such charges should not contradict the internationally recognised rights to free expression and peaceful association.” Until now, the Egyptian authorities have provided no explanation of any charges levied against those now being held in detention. Meanwhile, Gehad al-Haddad, a MB spokesman not yet in detention has tweeted that Morsi is being held separately in the Defence Ministry.

According to HRW, there appear to be arrest warrants issued for some 300 MB members and they have also issued travel bans on some 35 MB figures, based on charges they have incited violence, although the military continues to claim, “The armed forces have not arrested or detained any individual in Egypt for political reasons” and they have called on Egyptians to “exercise caution when spreading information about the military since this can be sold internationally” or “exploited for political reasons to tarnish the situation of freedoms in Egypt.” In the latest developments, “Foreign Policy” magazine reported on Wednesday that “the country’s prosecutor has now announced that the head of MB, Mohammed Badie, is to be arrested on charges of inciting violence. At the most recent count, around 650 Islamist-oriented political leaders have been arrested.”

HRW says there has been very little information about any of these arrests, adding that acting Prosecutor General Abdelmeguid Mahmoud was the same Mubarak-era prosecutor now-former-president Morsi had dismissed in late November 2012. Given that history and the fact Mahmoud’s outspoken disagreement with the MB following his earlier dismissal would seem to be a weather vane pointing away from true impartiality. Further, HRW said that while it certainly may be true some MB leaders have made statements that were essentially incitements to violence – activities that could certainly be the basis for lawful prosecutions – the mass arrests of the organisation’s leadership are politically motivated and simply based on their membership of the group.

New restrictions have not simply included arrests and detentions. The programme director of the Misr 25 television station told HRW his station’s broadcasts suddenly went down just after the military assumed charge, when special forces stormed into the studio and arrested him and nearly two dozen other journalists – although they were released 36 hours later.

Security forces also stopped broadcasts from four other channels that were distributing Salafist-style materials. Egypt’s Interior Ministry claims these broadcasts were inciting violence, without offering specific evidence of their claim. HRW argues that the authorities should charge individuals if there really are clear grounds for the charge of inciting violence – rather than simply shuttering a station by arbitrary measures, as this is tantamount to collective punishment.

State censors have now banned at least one edition of Freedom and Justice, the MB’s newspaper, and has limited its distribution runs to 10,000 copies. Military and police units also raided Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr, seizing equipment and arresting the station’s managing director and its studio engineer, Ahmad Hassan, for two days. They then accused him of operating the broadcast entities without a proper licence. Then, on 5 July, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Al Jazeera’s Arabic Bureau Chief for broadcasting “incendiary news.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to the rising international concern, the Obama administration has continued to give signals that its national security concerns are outweighing its earlier support for Egypt’s nascent democracy (and even its arguments for greater democracy that were contained in President Obama’s Cairo speech a couple of years ago). So far at least, it has declined to explicitly define the recent events in Egypt as a coup and has signalled that it will continue to provide the assistance that Egypt’s military establishment deems crucial for that country’s military establishment.

Then, as rival mass demonstrations (for the Moris government or against it and in apparent support for the military’s decision to end Morsi’s leadership) took place and significant violence between security forces and supporters of the now-ousted president took place, including a growing number of fatalities, the Obama administration urged the military to exercise what it termed “maximum restraint.” They also said the military would not be punished with a cut-off of its $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid for toppling Morsi.

If the US government does make that determination about a coup, American law would now require the termination of all non-humanitarian aid to the country. And although administration sources have told journalists that US government lawyers continue to review Egyptian developments, the combination of no specification of a coup and the administration’s reluctance to condemn the military’s action has been a pretty strong, albeit implicit, message of American approval for the military – so far at least. In effect, government sources have been arguing that the leverage from continuing aid to the Egyptian military was critically important for American national security, the safety of Egypt’s neighbour, Israel and the imperative of promoting the broader stability in the Middle East.

In setting out this argument, White House press secretary Jay Carney has said, “It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance programme to Egypt.” Carney added that more than the fact of the physical removal from office of a democratically elected leader would be part of the legal review. Carney said, “We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place and to monitor efforts by Egyptian authorities to forge an inclusive and democratic way forward. And as we do, we will review our requirements under the law, and we will do so consistent with our policy objectives. And we will also, of course, consult with Congress on that.”

In amplifying this view, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added, “The reason we have provided this aid in the past doesn’t mean we have supported, even prior to this, every action taken by the government of Egypt. But there are security interests in the region; there are security interests for the United States.” Anonymous officials, however, also told media that any “no, it wasn’t a coup” finding could become increasingly hard to justify – especially if violence levels rise between Morsi supporters and security forces – that would feed fears Egypt could well spiral down into civil war.

Picking up on that discouraging scenario, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (a man with years of experience in the Middle East) wrote on 10 July, “The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts this week and it can’t come too soon. One can only hope that the traditional time for getting family and friends together will provide a moment for all the actors in Egypt to reflect on how badly they’ve behaved – all sides – and opt for the only sensible pathway forward: national reconciliation…

I’ve never witnessed the depth of hatred that has infected Egypt in recent months: Muslim Brotherhood activists throwing a young opponent off a roof; anti-Islamist activists on Twitter praising the Egyptian army for mercilessly gunning down supporters of the Brotherhood in prayer. In the wake of all this violent turmoil, it is no longer who rules Egypt that it is at stake. It is Egypt that is at stake. This is an existential crisis. Can Egypt hold together and move forward as a unified country or will it be torn asunder by its own people, like Syria?”

And in judging the gravity of the current trend, Friedman added, “Nothing is more important in the Middle East today, because when the stability of modern Egypt is at stake – sitting as it does astride the Suez Canal, the linchpin of any Arab peace with Israel and knitting together North Africa, Africa and the Middle East – the stability of the whole region is at stake.”

Clearly thinking about such issues, there are reports US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has spoken repeatedly with General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Although Pentagon spokesmen declined to give details, sources told reporters that Hagel’s expressed concerns centred about worries further Egyptian military actions could force America’s hand on suspending military assistance. These background briefers added the US has been quietly urging the Egyptian military to move quickly on getting a transitional civilian leadership up and running and get on the move with a call for new elections and the drafting of a new constitution. Such actions might at least give Washington a bit of wiggle room in its on-going review of Egyptian developments.

Meanwhile, opinions in Congress remain divided – but not solely along party lines. For example, Republican Senator John McCain was critical of Morsi’s performance as Egypt’s president, but took note of the obvious fact that Morsi had been democratically elected. McCain said, “It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role. I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time.”

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner added, “Well I think the situation in Egypt is a tenuous one. One of the most respected institutions in the country is their military. And I think their military, on behalf of the citizens, did what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president. But anything further, I think we’ll wait for consultations with the administration on how we would move ahead.” Not too surprisingly, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, a man increasingly seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, said via Twitter, “In Egypt, governments come and go. The only thing certain is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5-billion bill.”

On the other hand, while Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin argued, “I think that we need to suspend aid to the new government until it does in fact schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution.” Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine announced after returning from a trip to the region, that he felt close American allies in the region had advised against halting this funding. Kaine said, “It’s important that we not just shoot from the hip on that.”

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the military has now announced Hazem el-Beblawi, a former finance minister, would be Egypt’s new prime minister. El-Beblawi’s reputation is as an economics technocrat – skills that will be crucial in trying to cope with the country’s mind-numbing economic problems. El-Beblawi’s appointment came as Mohammed El-Baradei, the former UN official and Nobel peace laureate, would become the vice president responsible for foreign affairs. El-Baradei was apparently supposed to have become prime minister, but his appointment was blocked by the Salafist Nour political party, just as he was due to take office.

El-Beblawi says he knows what must be done to right the economy. Some months ago he had told the Washington Post, “The thing is we have a situation whereby we have to tighten the belt. And this means we have to pay a price. And it is difficult to ask people to sacrifice, particularly after the revolution, where everyone was expecting to get rewards for past experiences.”

Given such demands, he will have some serious heavy lifting ahead in trying to lock in a $4.8-billion loan package from the IMF. However, he did get some cheer with announcements from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they are making $8-billion in aid available to Egypt. And most recently, Kuwait anted up another $4-billion more. Most analysts see this as both an effort to bolster the Egyptian economy and to undercut the conservative monarchies’ Islamist archenemies in Egypt and the region.

So far at least, there is little to suggest a more settled Egypt is on the horizon. Rather, there is abundant evidence that could encourage speculation things will only become even more difficult, given Egypt’s doleful economic circumstances and political dynamic. Back in the early 19th Century, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (the chronicler of the rise of American democracy and the difficulties of an authoritarian Russian Empire) had concluded after seeing how the czarist regime had been forced into some modest reforms, had argued that the most dangerous times for a repressive regime comes when it attempts to implement a platform of reforms. Given his feelings about such things, maybe his shade has now been watching Egypt’s current agonies as well from afar. DM

For more, read:

  • Egypt (a series of three articles) at the Brookings Institution;

  • Human Rights Watch;

  • No cutoff in US aid to Egyptian military _ for now at the AP;

  • Egypt at the Edge (a column by Tom Friedman) at the New York Times;

  • Egypt’s emerging leaders after Morsi’s overthrow at the AP;

  • Is Egypt’s Revolution Over? at Slate;

  • Kuwait pledges $4bn to prop up Egyptian economy at the Financial Times;

Photo: A supporter of the deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi prays before he eats his Iftar meal on the first day of Ramadan, during a sit-in in Cairo July 10, 2013. The White House said on Wednesday it will take time to determine whether the Egyptian military’s removal of Mursi constituted a coup, and called on the military to exercise restraint. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem


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