Detention of Hossam Bahgat Shows Need to Prioritize Human Rights in U.S. Relationship with Egypt
With the detention of prominent human rights defender and investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat, the U.S. government should take this moment to reassess its relationship with the dictatorial government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. Soft-pedaling criticism of Egypt’s terrible human rights record is not working.
The United States is sending mixed messages about the worsening human rights record of its ally. In October 2013, to demonstrate concern over the military’s removal of the democratically elected civilian president Mohamed Morsi and the mass killings of pro-Morsi protesters, the Obama Administration placed a hold on military aid to Egypt. In March, President Obama lifted that hold even though Egypt hadn’t met the human rights conditions.
The Sisi government has a wide range of sweeping restrictive laws that it uses to restrict freedom of expression and to deter the activities of civil society organizations. Bahgat’s detention on charges of “spreading false information with the purpose of harming public order” and “publishing false news with malicious intent” again show the government’s preference for suppressing information over dealing with the challenges facing the country. Egypt is plagued by worsening security, deepening economic woes, and collapsing infrastructure. Silencing the messengers who seek to report on these challenges will not solve them. And international confidence in Egypt’s leaders, already running at a low ebb, will be further undermined by heavy handed repression against one of the country’s leading activists.
However, the U.S. government’s response to the detention of Bahgat was extremely weak. At the State Department daily press briefing on November 9 the spokesperson didn’t even express concern about Bahgat’s treatment, let alone give it the condemnation it deserved. In contrast, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued a strong statement, noting, “this is just the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders that are profoundly worrying to the Secretary General.”
Military Intelligence summoned Bahgat to appear on November 8 in Cairo. They transferred him to the military prosecutor where he was interrogated for several hours without access to his lawyers. Subjecting a civilian to military prosecution is completely illegitimate, and his pre-trial detention violate Egyptian law, the terms of its Constitution adopted in 2014, and its obligations under international human rights law. His lawyers were able to meet with him on the evening of November 8, but on November 9 the military prosecutor announced that he was being held for four days. Even though Bahgat was released on November 10, it is unclear whether the charges against him remain open.
The U.S. government’s longstanding relationship with Egypt’s government and military establishment gives it influence that it should use to press for essential human rights reforms. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is right to stress that “pluralism and vibrant civil society are key for achieving long-term stability in the country, including the guarantee that all peaceful voices are heard and represented.” The U.S. government must demonstrate through consistent statements and appropriate human rights conditions to military assistance that it is serious when it talks about "the imperative nexus between human rights and security." When the Egyptian authorities disregard human rights as brazenly as they did in detaining Hossam Bahgat, U.S. officials should not be silent.