Congress Must Provide Leadership on Human Rights and Democracy in Egypt | Commentary

In the advent of Human Rights Day, a congressional joint subcommittee hearing was held on the human rights abuses in Egypt. In conjunction with a landmark day focusing on human rights, it seems appropriate to consider the hard-fought victories achieved in the name of personal freedom and respect for human dignity in recent years, many of which were accomplished through concerted congressional support.

At the same time, we must also reflect on the continuing struggles of people around the world who are searching for ways to reach such important goals. Nowhere is this battle more pronounced currently than in Egypt; and nowhere are efforts more needed to guide U.S. policy in defense of human rights than in Congress.

Recently, Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour and Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for a three-day period of mourning to honor the victims of a series of recent attacks on Egyptian military and governmental personnel. Those being remembered include 11 soldiers who died in an apparent suicide attack in North Sinai, a senior security official who was assassinated, and 26 civilians who died when a train collided with two trucks at a railroad crossing.

While these events are most certainly tragic, they are not the only unfortunate incidents that have plagued Egypt in recent days that should garner congressional attention. Nowhere in this government-sponsored time of reflection will you find mention of the pro-Morsi college student killed by security forces during a demonstration on campus in opposition to military control or of the sentencing of 38 students to lengthy prison sentences for “stirring riots” or even of the hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who have been killed at the hands of government forces in the past several months.

Egypt continues to spiral further and further away from legitimate democratic rule, and those who seek to voice their opposition to what is occurring have found little support emerging from the international community. This is especially true in regards to the baffling individualistic stances of U.S. government officials and the roadblocks placed in the way of congressional legislation which would greatly affect aid given to the Egyptian government based on its adherence to human rights and religious freedom standards. More must be done to cement a coherent policy that evinces the notion that the United States is concerned with the freedom and prosperity of the Egyptian people under a fairly elected democratic government rather than attempting to maintain fractured relations with an authoritarian regime.

Consider the recent actions of Secretary of State John Kerry. While White House officials continue to hint that the military government in Egypt needs to be taken to task for its oppressive and often brutal practices, Kerry publicly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of hijacking Egypt’s 2011 revolution in a bid to mend relations with the current regime. While this is undoubtedly a strategic move to secure U.S. interests in the region, it is disturbingly ironic to consider how America’s chief diplomat is admonishing supporters of the democratically elected government of Egypt, who supposedly hijacked the electoral process, and then supporting the military rulers who blatantly did just that.

During the joint subcommittee hearing focusing on human rights abuses in Egypt, it became very apparent that, while the individual members present differed in their opinions on whether supporters of President Mohammed Morsi or the interim military government were ultimately responsible for the atrocities taking place, the goal of the United States should be to tie future aid packages to notable advances in and protection of human rights and religious freedom standards as well as adherence to the principles of legitimate constitutional democracy. While such language was originally included in the last foreign appropriations bill, it was eventually waived by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The truly expedient decision for the United States to make remains the supporting of legitimate democracy based in respect towards every citizen above all other concerns. Regardless of its political stances, the Morsi regime was elected through the consensus of the Egyptian people and should be reinstated if any attempt to salvage democracy is to succeed. To that end, the United States has an obligation, as the penultimate engine for democratic change and as a staunch guardian of human rights, to aid those efforts rather than hinder them.

As pleas to U.S. officials and the international community have yet to spur just policy changes, perhaps the numbers will. The current military government was responsible for killing almost 900 people in a single day during an Islamist sit-in this past August. A group of young girls was arrested, strip-searched and detained for 10 days for distributing balloons symbolizing the massacre. During the same month, 80 pro-Morsi protesters were held for at least 14 days in violation of their rights and were confined to two cells designed to hold 20 prisoners each. Since the military takeover, roughly 3,500 people have been arrested across the country. Less than one-third have been released. Many of those who remain have not been heard from since their original arrest.

It is clear that many within the U.S. Congress understand the intrinsic importance of these events in regards to maintaining a consistent message supporting democratic freedom and human dignity. An understanding that, as of yet, cannot be attributed to the administration. However, we cannot stop at only an understanding; Congress must take action to stand for democracy and human rights in Egypt and provide the leadership that the United States has yet to provide.

Ahmed Shehata is the vice president of Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights.

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