The Obama administration appears to be responding to complaints from local activists, expert analysts and the regime’s own excesses by criticizing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
The US envoy to Cairo criticized President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government for economic mismanagement and intolerance of dissent this week in an unprecedented critique of its authoritarian drift.
“Every economy goes through bad periods, but economies only recover when they are tended,” said ambassador Anne Patterson (right). “The most catastrophic path is for the government and the political leadership of the country – whether in power or in opposition – to avoid decisions, to show no leadership, to ignore the economic situation of the country.”
She also expressed concern at the illiberal provisions of the new constitution, drafted by an Islamist-packed committee.
“Those, like me, who find themselves in the public eye, are well-advised to work on acquiring thicker skins instead of wasting time and resources suing their detractors,” she said.
Patterson suggested that the government was responsible for a backlash against the “dramatically changed landscape” of “reinvigorated” media.
“We have seen court cases launched against journalists simply for speaking their mind. We have seen quite alarming attempts to intimidate journalists by encircling their studies at Media City, with little response from the authorities,” she said.
“One leading and reputable journalist told me a couple of days ago that his news outlet had been sued 200 times. This is clearly harassment and a distraction from the important work of the media.”
The apparent shift in US policy will be welcomed by Bahieddin Hassan (left), a human rights activist who last week wrote an open letter accusing the Obama administration of “giving cover” to Morsi’s regime and “allowing it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.”
Washington’s criticism of the Islamist government coincides with calls for the Obama administration to change its approach from ‘velvet glove’ to ‘tough love’.
“Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists,” according to the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. …. Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.
Morsi attracted further criticism from rights activists and appeared to confirm his authoritarian instincts last month when he replaced the minister of interior not with an outsider but a former occupant of the post and veteran Mubarak apparatchik accused of rights violations.
“We are also against the current interior minister and want to see him replaced,” said a police officer protesting in Alexandria against government policies.
“I believe that he is a Muslim Brotherhood loyalist and he is trying to ‘brotherhoodise’ the whole ministry. He is working to serve the brotherhood’s political interests and leaves us to be confronted by angry protesters because of his policies to serve and protect the brotherhood while he is sitting at his office not caring what happens to us in the streets when we face angry demonstrators.”
The episode will contribute to the “disillusionment [that] runs particularly deep among young men who have proved a political powder keg and feel new Islamist regimes have done little to combat poverty and high youth unemployment,” analyst Daragahi suggests:
Their anger is heightened when police resort to the same harsh tactics they used in the Mubarak era in spite of claims from the security services that they have mended their ways. In short, little has changed.
The absence of rapid reform has created an environment that is even more volatile and dangerous than two years ago, rights monitors warn. As a result of the revolution, Egyptians are more defiant of authority and more willing to put themselves in the line of fire. The tactics of the police, under the authority of the mammoth interior ministry, threaten stability. This is crucial for a country of 83m that has long been seen as the centre of gravity of the Arab world but has struggled to rebuild foreign investment and tourism since the revolution.
“Within the ministry, the laws they work under, the regulations they work by and the untold rules they work by – nothing has changed,” says Magda Boutros, a lawyer working for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the country’s main human rights groups. “In terms of their practices, nothing has changed. But the relationship between the people and the police has changed, and sometimes we find that things can become more violent than they used to be, and the police are becoming more brutal than they used to be.”
Pointing to comments by security officials complaining of weak laws and soft penalties for crime, some observers have concluded that the Morsi government and its Islamist allies have been forced to cut a deal with the ministry’s stalwarts to restore order on the streets and get the economy back on track, the FT’s Daragahi reports:
“They say, ‘You want security on the streets, you want Egypt to look like a good investment, you want tourism back, that means business as usual’,” says Heba Morayef, of Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group.
On February 5, a group of human rights activists stormed out of a meeting with Ahmed Mekki, the justice minister, after he refused to acknowledge the need for reform of the legal and security systems and instead accused activists and the media of stirring up the recent unrest that has hurt the economy.
“I refused his argument that the police could be reformed from within, and [said] that calling for reform from outside does not mean that we want the downfall of the police,” Khaled Fahmy, a professor at the American University of Cairo who attended the meeting, wrote in an account posted on Facebook.
“Freedom of expression has all along been something of a red line,” he said. “In private discussions this was one of the issues that was laid down as something that shouldn’t be crossed.”
Egypt has been agitating for the US to invite Morsi to Washington, but that should be put on hold until the regime demonstrates a more liberal and inclusive approach to governance, say the co-chairs of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.
“That means supporting a law that meets international standards on regulating civil society, allowing watchdog organizations to operate freely and finally resolving the controversial status of foreign and foreign-funded NGOs,” according to Kagan and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:
It means ending the persecution of journalists and opposition figures, committing to reform the police and hold them accountable and building a consensus on such critical matters as the constitution and electoral law.
The United States made a strategic error for years by coddling Mubarak, and his refusal to carry out reforms produced the revolution of Tahrir Square. We repeat the error by coddling Morsi at this critical moment. The United States needs to use all its options — military aid, economic aid and U.S. influence with the IMF and other international lenders — to persuade Morsi to compromise with secular politicians and civil-society leaders on political and human rights issues to rebuild security and get the economy on track.