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June 08, 2016

Weak Stance on Human Rights in the Middle East Threatens to Tarnish President Obama’s Legacy

This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:

The Obama Administration’s passive response to the mounting human rights crisis and growing instability in Egypt is perplexing. It is not that the administration is unaware of the devastating levels of repression in Sisi’s Egypt; administration officials voice their concerns about mounting restrictions on freedom of expression and an escalating crackdown on independent civil society organizations in private meetings and, occasionally, in public statements.

Nor is it that the administration does not care about what happens in Egypt. Administration officials know that if problems mount in Egypt, many other challenges around the region become harder.

Contrary to the more paranoid assertions of President Sisi and his supporters, the U.S. government is not engaged in any dark conspiracy to divide Egypt or harm Egypt’s interests.

So what accounts for the administration’s repeated failures to confront Egypt’s leaders with their responsibility for massive violations of human rights and for its recurrent unwillingness to use its influence to persuade Sisi and the Egyptian authorities to turn away from their disastrous repressive course?

One issue that has determined policy is that Egypt has just never been a priority concern within the administration’s broader regional policy. The administration has always had greater ambitions - like the Iran nuclear deal or Arab-Israeli peace - or more urgent crises to deal with, like Syria, and has viewed Egypt primarily in terms of how it can be helpful to achieving these other priority objectives.

President Obama described this instrumental relationship with Egypt in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013 when he spoke of maintaining “a constructive relationship with the [then] interim government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counterterrorism.” In the same address, President Obama made clear his intention to work with governments “who work with us on our core interests,” even if they have poor human rights records.

This points to a second factor that has shaped administration policy towards Egypt: the fact that promoting human rights has not been a priority interest in bi-lateral relationships with U.S. allies and partners in the region. For example, In March 2015, the administration lifted the suspension in the delivery of “certain military systems” withheld over human rights concerns, despite a worsening in the human rights situation.

U.S. government officials claim that the United States lacks leverage with the Egyptian authorities on human rights issues. How could they know, since the sustained, patient application of human rights conditions has never been tried?

The administration’s Middle East policy demonstrates that if the United States does not lead multilateral efforts to promote positive change, no one else will, allowing unresolved problems to fester and spread instability.

In standing by as the Sisi regime doubles down on tyranny, the U.S. government is playing into the hands of not only the authoritarian regime in Cairo, but also to assertive authoritarian powers around the world, which oppose U.S. efforts to promote human rights and democracy everywhere.

Authoritarians are anxious to crush popular mobilization aimed at bringing more representative, less corrupt governments wherever they can. Egypt’s current crisis feeds into the authoritarian narrative that popular uprisings, whether they are the color revolutions of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union or the Arab Spring, will inevitably fail and make life worse for the masses who may have dared to hope for something better.

Authoritarian governments, like Russia, China or Saudi Arabia work from a common playbook in seeking to discredit local advocates of human rights as “traitors” and “foreign agents.” They also support each other diplomatically, and in the case of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Egypt, with financial backing.

While the United States and its allies are selective and at times reluctant about promoting universal values, authoritarians pursue their goal of crushing peaceful democratic change relentlessly and ruthlessly. For example, in Syria, Russia, Iran have shown that they are willing to destroy a country, drive millions from their homes and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in order to ensure that there will be no peaceful transition away the Assad dictatorship.

The myriad of unresolved problems and conflicts that the Obama Administration will leave as its legacy in the Arab region point to a culpable readiness to deny the possibility of change, and a dangerous passivity in the face of concerted and destructive efforts by rival authoritarian states to undermine non-violent, democratic change. Its failure to implement effective policies to support peaceful inclusive democratic change in Egypt and across the Arab region has inflicted a terrible cost, harmed U.S. interests by continuing to associate Washington with repressive rulers, and contributed to the emergence of destabilizing violent extremist groups, like ISIS, which today threaten the United States and its allies in Europe.

In its remaining months, the Obama Administration should put into practice its own rhetoric emphasizing that “restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security,” that it will work against corruption because it is a “contributor to terrorism,” and use its influence to persuade its allies to curb violations of human rights that harm multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism.