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Column: Egypt Equates Political Dissent with Terrorism

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at the State Department in Washington.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks to members of the media during his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, at the State Department in Washington.

For Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy – born in New York and for nine years Egypt’s ambassador in Washington – this has been an uncomfortable homecoming.

On the one hand, the Barack Obama administration has promised to restore $650 million in US military aid suspended after last summer’s coup; on the other hand, Fahmy has been hard-pressed in public appearances this week to defend the military-dominated government’s harsh crackdown on civil liberties.

Fahmy has urged Americans to be patient with what he called Egypt’s “transformation” and await the result of presidential elections scheduled next month. But Americans familiar with Egypt’s political history say the situation now is far worse than it was under Hosni Mubarak and that the trend lines are not good.

Mubarak, the autocratic president deposed in a popular revolution three years ago, governed under a “state of emergency” imposed after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. The current government, dominated by president-in-waiting Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is in the process of codifying that repressive regime, says Michelle Dunne, an Egypt expert and former US diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dunne told VOA that Egypt is following the example of Saudi Arabia by “making dissent a terrorist crime,” something Jordan is also planning to do. Indeed Saudi pressure – expressed through billions of dollars in economic aid to Egypt – may have had something to do with Egypt’s decision late last year to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia has also designated the Brotherhood a terrorist group.

The Brotherhood clearly botched its exercise of power during the year-long presidency of Mohamed Morsi and some members have resorted to violence since Morsi's ouster. But the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction and authorities are casting too wide a net against both Islamist and secular opponents.

Already, more than 2,000 people have died in political violence since the July 3 coup -- most of them killed by government forces -- and more than 20,000 people have been arrested. This week’s sentencing of 683 people to death in connection with anti-government violence was the latest example of obscene excess. Although the sentences are to be appealed, next month’s presidential elections cannot be considered legitimate without participation by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party as well as liberal groups including the also banned April 6 Youth Movement which helped instigate Mubarak’s overthrow.

Fahmy, appearing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week, underlined the economic challenges faced by Egypt, whose population of 90 million will hit 100 million by 2030. “We need to grow 8-10% a year just to make ends meet,” he said. But the crackdown and the ever more constricted field for political activity is a recipe for more instability, which will continue to repel tourists and many foreign investors.

The Obama administration, facing more urgent crises in Syria and the Ukraine, has been sending mixed messages to Cairo. While both the White House and State Department criticized the latest death sentences, the administration announced last week that it intended to go ahead with the sale of 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt for use against al-Qaeda linked gangs in the Sinai.

The announcement faced some Congressional pushback. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for approving foreign aid, said Tuesday that he would block the Apaches because of Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record; he called the current Cairo government’s practices those of a “dictatorship run amok.” But the Obama administration may be able to override such concerns through parliamentary maneuvers.

Fahmy, trying to defend his government, compared the Brotherhood to groups such as Italy’s Red Army and Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff gang which planted bombs and assassinated officials in the 1970s. But these were tiny, cultish organizations with limited popular support while the Brotherhood still has the backing of perhaps 20 percent of Egyptian society. Founded in 1928, it built deep roots by providing public services that corrupt and inefficient regimes could not supply. Trying to stem terrorism by outlawing the Brotherhood is like trying to cure cancer by decapitating the patient.

The Obama administration cannot force Egypt to be more tolerant and politically inclusive. US officials can also argue that as long as Egypt maintains its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, US strategic interests are being served. David Mack, a former US diplomat with extensive experience in the Arab world, told VOA, “It’s very important that we have a relationship with Egypt whether it’s a military dictatorship, run by the Muslim Brotherhood or by graduates of the American University of Cairo.”

But as friends of Egypt, Americans should not be shy about speaking truth to pharaoh – and his emissaries. Fahmy should not have been surprised by the criticism he heard in Washington and he should honestly convey to his leader the growing American dismay at Egypt’s repressive relapse.
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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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