Egypt: The United States is complicit in human rights abuses in Egypt

In Conferences And Meetings, Egypt /Road Map Program by CIHRS

Bahey eldin Hassan testifies before the US Congress

On 26 October 2021, Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US Congress, in a special session devoted to ensuring that human rights are upheld and respected in the context of counterterrorism.

During his testimony, Hassan gave a brief presentation about how the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has exploited counterterrorism in Egypt as a cover for reprisals against opponents and critics of his authoritarian regime, retaliating against them with severe prison sentences. The Sisi government is also responsible for egregious, large-scale violations of Egyptians’ fundamental rights, including extrajudicial killing and assaults on the right to free expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The Sisi regime has used counterterrorism efforts as a pretext to amend the constitution, enact repressive laws, and form terrorism courts, which themselves have become a political weapon to lash out at government critics, including Hassan himself.

Hassan asserted that the unconditional praise and support lavished on Sisi and his government by Western states, among them the United States, renders them complicit in the repression and human rights violations seen daily in Egypt. To remedy this complicity, Hassan called on Congress to make a greater proportion of American military aid to Egypt conditional on respect for human rights and to refuse to release it barring tangible improvements in human rights. He also urged the US to ensure that American weaponry and equipment are not used in the commission of human rights crimes in the Sinai region and elsewhere in Egypt, and to support programs that meet the needs of the Egyptian people, such as healthcare and education.

Text of Bahey eldin Hassan’s intervention before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission; the text is a summary of a longer, documented statement given to the commission.

26 October 2021

Oral Statement of Bahey Eldin Hassan, Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Co-Chair McGovern and Co-Chair Smith thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Commission today.

Egypt is a text book example of a country where a repressive government has deliberately, and over a sustained period of time, used the need to counter terrorism as a method for strengthening its grip on power, and as a pretext to undermine basic freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly and association.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a military coup that pushed aside a democratically elected, civilian government in July 2013. At that time, CIHRS and other independent Egyptian human rights NGOs condemned the coup and Sisi’s demand for a political mandate to escalate repression under the pretext of countering terrorism.

It was a coup based on the use of brutal force. On August 14, 2013 Egyptian security forces, under the command of then General Sisi, carried out the worst incident of political violence in Egypt’s modern history. On that day over 800 civilian protesters against the coup were killed at Raba’a Al-Aadawiya Square in central Cairo. Over 2,000 unarmed civilians were killed by the security forces in the months after Sisi seized power, many shot down in the street while not presenting a threat to anyone. This was violence on an unprecedented level for Egypt, comparable to horrific massacres like Tiananmen Square in China.

Counterterrorism has been a central theme of Sisi’s rule serving as a pretext to amend the constitution to centralize power in his hands, and in passing counter terrorism laws and establishing special terrorism court circuits that have become instruments to silence dissent.

I speak from personal experience. Last year I was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years’ imprisonment by a terrorism circuit court for “spreading false news,” and “insulting the judiciary.” This was the longest sentence handed down to date against a civil society human rights defender in Egypt.

What were my activities on which these charges were based? Speaking out publicly against human rights violations that are taking place every day in Sisi’s Egypt, where tens of thousands of political prisoners are held in harsh conditions after grossly unfair trials, or without any trial through the abuse of pre-trial detention procedures. My repeated advocacy at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva highlighting the harsh truths about Sisi’s republic of fear and repression have made me the target or reprisals by the Egyptian authorities, something recognized several times by the UN Secretary General in his annual reports on reprisals against those who cooperate with UN human rights bodies.

Charging non-violent dissidents using counterterrorism legislation and special courts has now become a widespread practice. This serves multiple purposes for the Sisi government: it increases the penalties so those in Egypt who choose to follow their conscience and criticize the government risk very severe consequences of long years of imprisonment. This has a chilling effect. Second, it dampens domestic criticism of the government’s actions. If the people are told that these harsh actions are what is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism, then they can be accepted. Third, it is a way to deflect international criticism.

No fair-minded person who spends a few minutes reviewing the situation in Egypt today can deny that the Sisi government is responsible for widespread, systematic, serious violations of human rights. These violations have been extensively documented by the UN, Egyptian and international human rights NGOs and by the US State Department. Nonetheless, the Sisi government invariably receives praise from Western governments, including the United States, regardless of which party is in power, as an ally in the fight against terrorism. That unconditional praise makes them indirect partners in committing those violations, in particular those committed using western-exported weapons and equipment.

This brings me to what I most want to talk with you about today. In order to understand the misuse of counterterrorism in Sisi’s Egypt it is necessary to recognize that Sisi, like the Syrian slaughterer Bashar Al-Assad, benefits from, and even depends on, the existence of a terrorist threat that has become a basic principle of his mode of governance. Because Sisi needs the terrorist threat to survive, it is in his interest to maintain it. As long as Sisi continues to rule in this manner there will always be a terrorist threat in Egypt. If that is destabilizing and a security concern for Western governments, as it should be, Sisi doesn’t care. Sisi knows he can frighten western leaders with terrorism, and blackmail them into silence on his human rights violations with the implied threat of what would happen if he wasn’t there.

I put it to you as members of the United States Congress that this is a shameful state of affairs. The United States government, and this Commission that stands for human rights around the world, should speak the truth about the massive human rights violations taking place in a country that has been considered as an important strategic partner for decades.

I encourage Congress to:

  1. Increase the proportion of military assistance subject to specific human rights conditions;
  2. Ensure that a proportion of the conditioned funds will not be subject to a waiver so that if Egypt fails to implement serious human rights reforms it will not receive the funds.
  3. Reduce the overall amount of military assistance given to Egypt. The budget of the Egyptian military is not subject to any kind of parliamentary or public oversight, and the Egyptian military has been involved in documented serious violations of human rights in Sinai, military prisons and elsewhere.
  4. Continue to support programs in Egypt that meet the needs of the Egyptian people for health care and provide educational opportunities.
  5. Make sure that the weapons and equipment made in the US are not used in committing human rights crimes in Sinai and the rest of Egypt.

Thank you for this opportunity.

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