Terrorist Violence in Egypt Underlines the Need for the U.S. Government to Press the Egyptian Government to Respect Human Rights
Egypt’s Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat was assassinated on Monday, marking a serious escalation in the increasingly violent struggle against the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This past May held the highest reported number of terrorist attacks in Egypt on record.
Predictably, with the assassination of such a senior judicial official many have demanded more repression, with calls on social media and in the press to try terrorist suspects by military courts and to carry out the hundreds of death sentences already announced against members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization. President Sisi promised “swift justice” in his remarks at the funeral on Tuesday, and appeared to suggest that the death sentences already passed would be carried out.
Since Sisi came to power, courts have passed over 500 death sentences, many after unfair trials. Those facing execution include former President Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, and many other senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the military removed Morsi from power in July 2013, it sparked ongoing political violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of members of the security forces, especially in the North Sinai region. The security forces have killed thousands of protesters and civilian bystanders, fueling an escalating spiral of violence.
State media in Egypt has accused the Brotherhood of responsibility for the deadly bomb attack, but it appears more likely that Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Egypt’s most deadly terrorist group, carried out the bombing. The group released a YouTube video the day before the Prosecutor General’s murder, called “The Liquidation of Judges,” criticizing the judiciary and depicting the assassination of three judges in Sinai in May. Ansar Beit al-Maqdes claimed responsibility for a similar, but unsuccessful, assassination attempt against the then Minister of the Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, in September 2013.
While the Brotherhood still officially claims to be opposed to political violence, statements by its leaders and its media outlets sometimes appear to endorse and even incite violence. Their official position is that violence will not end until the current regime is overthrown. Thus both the government and the main opposition movement are intensifying their violent, retaliatory rhetoric—thereby fueling further polarization and more conflict. Meanwhile, committed terrorist groups are stepping up their attacks on the security forces and the judiciary.
Escalating human rights violations, including mass arrests of political prisoners without fair legal procedures; killings of protesters; enforced disappearances; torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and detainees; restrictions on basic freedoms of assembly and expression; attacks on independent civil society and human rights organizations, worsen the political crisis and fuel instability.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that he intends to travel to Cairo on July 28-29 to take part in the bi-lateral strategic dialogue between the United States and Egypt. The United States has a strong interest in having a stable regional partner in Egypt, but President Sisi’s unprecedented repression, denial of rights and freedoms, and unfettered use of state violence is failing to restore stability.
Before traveling to Cairo Secretary Kerry should make clear that the United States will be calling on President Sisi to turn away from counterproductive policies that have worsened the security situation and strengthened violent extremist groups in Egypt. In particular, Secretary Kerry should urge President Sisi not to execute any Muslim Brotherhood leaders currently sentenced to death after unfair trials. Such a step would accelerate the logic of mutual destruction that will lead only to further violence and instability.
Beyond this urgent demand, made more pressing by President Sisi’s words this morning, the United States should strongly urge President Sisi and the Egyptian authorities to set out a credible plan for restoring democratic government, as Sisi promised when the military seized power in July 2013, as well as implementing the commitments to respect human rights provided for in the Egyptian Constitution and the international human rights obligations by which Egypt is bound. To be a true friend to Egypt the U.S. government should not shy away from speaking the truth: wholesale human rights violations will have a devastating impact on the long term prospects for stability in security in Egypt.