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There is an unfortunate tendency within American foreign policy circles to develop irrational hatreds. Part of this is the product of partisanship: Within the halls of Congress, too often countries cease being partners and instead become political footballs. And part of it is tunnel vision. Human rights are important, but those who define themselves as activists are frequently unwilling to understand either the complexities of other societies or accept that the potential for instability is real, and the results of that instability could lead to far worse human rights situations.
Consider Iran under the Shah: Iran was an important Cold War ally for the U.S. and, in the wordsof Jimmy Carter, “an island of stability in a sea of turmoil.” Iran’s lynchpin status led successive American administrations to paper over differences with the Shah. As Secretary of State Cyrus Vance explained in his memoirs, Carter was unwilling to turn a blind eye to the Shah’s human rights abuses. The Shah had long been unpopular among diplomats and, as Iranians took to the streets to protest his dictatorial ways, many in the State Department counseled in favor of abandoning the pro-American leader. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski explained that “the lower echelons at State, notably the head of the Iran Desk … were motivated by doctrinal dislike of the Shah and simply wanted him out of power altogether.” They got their wish. Human rights activists swore until they were blue in the face that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was, as Senate aide William Miller described him, “a progressive force for human rights.” Richard Falk, a Princeton political scientist who was influential in the Carter administration and later enjoyed senior U.N. appointments, urged the White House to embrace Khomeini. “The depiction of him [Khomeini] as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false,” he explained, adding, “His close advisers are uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals … who share a notable record of concern with human rights.” Of course, what followed, was an all-out assault on human rights that has led Iranians to pine for the days of the Shah.
Now, consider Egypt. Like Iran, it is a pivotal country. After all, 1-in-5 Arabs call themselves Egyptians. Egypt controls the Suez Canal. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to try peace instead of war with Israel has led to 40 years of peace, in contrast to the turmoil of the preceding three decades. Simply put, Sadat’s gamble provided a model to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict which persists to the present.
Traditionally, while the U.S. appreciated the role Egypt plays in the security of the region, there has been a broad bipartisan concern about the over-securitization of bilateral relations. This has led to a number of haphazard efforts to promote democratization and liberalism. Admittedly, it was as often the U.S. ambassador as the Egyptian government that killed such efforts.
The Arab Spring, along with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, brought the debate to the forefront. Young Egyptians sought democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood which had spent decades underground and in opposition jumped at the chance. They had developed a reputation for efficiency in their social service network and had long cultivated supporters among Egypt’s youth, diplomats, and analysts abroad who accepted their rhetoric of democracy at face value.
After Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate, squeaked by in the 2012 elections with just 51 percent of the vote, however, the Muslim Brotherhood proved its rhetoric empty. Morsi cast aside previous democratic commitments. Rather than consult the public and political opposition, he sought to dominate Egypt. Even more explicitly than Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan would later, Morsi argued his power should trump the judiciary. He offered the Egyptian people a Faustian bargain: Accept the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood opposed absent a parliamentary quorum, or suffer his dictatorship. That constitution imposed the Brotherhood’s religious agenda on a population that wanted jobs, not Islamic law. One article, for example, charged the state with protecting public morality, which Morsi interpreted in the most conservative, religious manner.
Against this backdrop, the uprising against Morsi is understandable. In many ways, its story is even more important than the Arab Spring itself: In the space of a year, Morsi alienated and antagonized Egyptians in a way that took Mubarak three decades to accomplish.
Within Washington, those who staked their career promoting or downplaying the Brotherhood, however, could not accept the manner in which Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power. Fairer critics of Morsi thought it would have been wiser to allow Morsi to serve until electoral defeat. The problem with that, of course, is the assumption Morsi would have allowed free and fair elections.
Abuses occurred in the months that followed Morsi’s fall, and neither el-Sissi nor the Muslim Brotherhood was blameless. El-Sissi cracked down hard, and Egyptian forces ran roughshod over critics and opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, also turned to violence to avenge its loss of power. Things came to a head in the clashes on Aug. 14, 2013, when police tried to clear a sit-in camp near the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque. Estimates vary, but in subsequent clashes, several hundred protesters died, as did several dozen police.
That violence outraged critics who already harbored irrational hatred toward el-Sissi. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, for example, seemed to make up casualty figures out of thin air when he felt personally aggrieved. Within Congress, several representatives sought to withhold security assistance due to human rights concerns. For example, I used to visit Fort Hood, Texas, where helicopters bound for Egypt remained on tarmacs outside hangers, their transfer held up by a single senator. The Senate mandated Leahy vetting, in which aid to and training for foreign militaries is tied to their willingness to address accusations of human rights abuses. There are two problems with this, however. The first is that not every human rights accusation is legitimate. Both HRW and Amnesty International often corrupt their process with politics. The second is that withholding training because of human rights abuses likely guarantees those abuses remain unaddressed.
Many senators and representatives are sincere in their human rights concerns, but their actions are callous and detrimental to human rights. Egypt is facing an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai that predates the ousters of both Mubarak and Morsi and is rooted more in ideology than grievance. To withhold the tools necessary to fight that insurgency risks empowering radicals that emulate the Islamic State or encouraging an Egyptian turn toward Russia which, likewise, would setback human rights. While the U.S. government should not abandon human rights advocacy, security blackmail is neither effective nor wise.
It is true that el-Sissi has cracked down too hard on the press and opposition, but it is also true that he has forced through economic reforms that were a half-century delayed. Had he not constrained some political space, then populism both among secularists and Islamists would have pushed an already teetering Egypt off the fiscal precipice.
Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo authorized the release of $1.2 billion in aid withheld to Egypt because of human rights concerns. He is right to do so. Egypt fights al Qaeda, and it has done more than any other state to stabilize Libya. But there is more to do. U.S. officials continue to hold up spare parts for F-16s, unmanned aerial vehicles, and M1A1 tanks. These are all platforms used to battle insurgents, not journalists or the non-violent opposition.
Defeating Islamist terrorism and securing human rights need not be mutually exclusive endeavors. How unfortunate, then, that even after Pompeo’s recent moves, Washington’s myopia seems increasingly determined to pursue policies that promise to do neither.
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