SECRETARY OF State John F. Kerry was in Cairo on Aug. 2 for a “U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue,” the first in six years. Mr. Kerry offered some sunny bromides. “We are confident,” he declared, “that Egypt has really good reason to ensure that the fundamental rights of its citizens are protected, that vital principles such as due process and freedom of press and association are cherished, and that women are empowered, and that every Egyptian has the right to participate peacefully within a truly democratic political process.”
Egypt does have “really good reason” to ensure these things, but President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is not listening. This week he made a mockery of Mr. Kerry’s list by approving a draconian new internal security law that contains a host of sweeping definitions and vague provisions that could be used to silence journalists, civil society activists and opposition politicians. The law sets heavy fines for “false news or statements” about terrorist acts and for news that contradicts the Defense Ministry; it gives legal protection for the security agencies to use force; and it allows authorities to detain people even before a complaint is submitted or charges brought.
The Tahrir Square revolution of 2011 offered a tantalizing promise of a more democratic future after decades of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak. But Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, proved inept and was toppled in a military coup led by then-Gen. Sissi. Step by step, he has restored and then surpassed the machinery of repression of the Mubarak regime.
The new security law is the latest step in that descent. Ostensibly it is a response to a wave of violence and terrorism; particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, a group now affiliated with the Islamic State presents a serious challenge. But the new law will not improve security, and it will smother any opposition and continue destroying civil society.
President Obama declared in a speech in Cairo in 2009 that leaders must hold power “through consent, not coercion,” must show “a spirit of tolerance and compromise” and must realize that people yearn for “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed,” “confidence in the rule of law” and “the freedom to live as you choose.”
Nice ideas, but not in today’s Egypt. Once again, the United States seems willing to look the other way as an Egyptian president bludgeons his critics into silence.
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