CIA Director Brennan Misses Opportunity to Publicly Raise Human Rights Concerns in Cairo
Since lifting the hold on military assistance to Egypt at the end of last month, high level contacts between the United States and the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have proliferated.
In the latest of these, CIA Director John Brennan met with President Sisi in Cairo on April 19 in talks geared towards “laying the foundations for peace and stability in the Middle East,” according to an official statement released by Sisi’s office after the meeting. The talks focused on security cooperation, especially U.S. support for Egypt in its struggle against terrorist threats in Sinai and elsewhere and multilateral cooperation in the fight against the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.
There is no indication whether or not Director Brennan raised the issue of human rights with President Sisi and other Egyptian leaders. This is a problem. The United States government is failing to send a clear message to important regional partners in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism that human rights violations “create[s] an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit,” in President Obama’s words. As such, the widespread violations of human rights committed under President Sisi’s rule are counterproductive: they fuel conflict and polarization within Egypt and spread instability throughout the region.
In his public comments, President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he sees the “internal threats” of dysfunctional politics, silencing of dissent and denial of human rights as just as big a challenge for America’s regional allies as the threat from terrorist groups or other regional powers, like Iran.
However, it is not enough for President Obama to talk in general terms about these all too real, longstanding problems. He and other senior figures in the administration must be prepared to raise these vital issues in face to face meetings with regional leaders, and to make the case publicly that respect for human rights is an essential element of effective security cooperation and counterterrorism strategy.
Egypt’s recent history provides ample evidence for the United States to make the case to its regional partners that oppression and denial of human rights do not produce stability. Since Sisi came to power in July 2013 the frequency and scope of terrorist incidents in Egypt have escalated alarmingly. Instability in Egypt, a regional bellwether, spreads throughout the region, adding to the complexity of the challenges facing the United States.
To be effective, the President’s message on the importance of upholding human rights must be communicated consistently and specifically—so that regional human rights violators cannot pretend that the administration’s general comments don’t apply to them—and across the different branches of the U.S. government. It is valuable when the Secretary of State talks about human rights in his public statements, but it has even more impact when these messages come from the director of the CIA, the Secretary of Defense, and other officials responsible for the implementation of security and counterterrorism cooperation.
The Director of the CIA missed an opportunity to raise publicly the vital issue of human rights violations in his meeting with President Sisi and other Egyptian leaders. The President should ensure that when his senior officials meet with regional partners with poor human rights records they do not duck the “tough conversations” about “how we engage in [the] counterterrorism cooperation … without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ.”
U.S. officials should engage in these tough conversations if security cooperation is going to have the desired results. Moreover, if the United States wants to avoid being blamed for the repressive tactics employed by its regional allies then it must publicly distance itself from such policies.