“WHEN DISSENT is silenced, it feeds violent extremism,” President Obama said at his counterterrorism summit last week. “When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” Among those present for his address was Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt — a country where extremism has been steadily growing since a July 2013 military coup against an elected government.
Four days after Mr. Obama spoke, a court in Egypt sentenced one of the country’s best-known liberal democratic activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to five years in prison, along with 20 other activists. The next day, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi issued a new law that will allow his regime to prosecute any protest as terrorism.
Evidently Mr. Shoukry wasn’t listening to Mr. Obama. Or maybe his government has concluded that, regardless of presidential rhetoric, the current U.S. administration will make no serious effort to arrest what has become the most extreme crackdown on peaceful dissent in Egypt’s modern history.
Mr. Abdel Fattah is one of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners, including several hundred sentenced under a draconian law banning all protests not previously approved by the government. According to an account prepared by 15 Egyptian human rights groups, the charges against him resulted from a November 2013 demonstration called to protest the inclusion in a new constitution of a provision allowing civilians to be tried by military courts. Said the groups’ statement: “Participants in the protest were beaten by police, while female protestors were sexually assaulted. Police then brought trumped-up charges against citizens who were exercising their right to peaceful expression.”
Many of those imprisoned are leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. But a growing number are secular democrats who supported the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and later protested the autocratic excesses of Mr. Morsi. They include Ahmed Maher and a dozen other leaders of the April 6 movement, and Ahmed Douma, a liberal blogger who was sentenced this month to life in prison . The new law issued by Mr. Sissi could send many more to jail: It defines as a “terrorist entity” any group that “harms national unity” or disrupts any government authority, including schools, from carrying out their work.
The Obama administration’s response to this extraordinary repression has been shaped in part by a law that forced a cutoff of aid after the coup and set congressional conditions for its resumption. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said the administration was “deeply troubled” by the Abdel Fattah verdict, pointed out that the last tranche of frozen aid still has not been released.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have repeatedly sent Cairo the message that the U.S.-Egyptian “security partnership” takes priority over human rights. On the same day that Ms. Psaki lightly chastised the regime for imprisoning yet another democratic activist, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter phoned his Egyptian counterpart. According to a Pentagon statement, Mr. Carter promised to “work closely” with the Sissi regime “to meet security challenges.” There was no mention of Mr. Obama’s point about how those “challenges” are fueled by the silencing of dissent.
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