On Human Rights, U.S. Seems to Give Egypt a Pass

On Human Rights, U.S. Seems to Give Egypt a Pass

Last month, Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian human rights advocate, met with President Bush in Washington when he was flown there for an award granted by the National Endowment for Democracy. Mr. Kassem, the only winner from Egypt, said that Mr. Bush had spoken effusively about promoting democracy to the other recipients, but he did not address the topic when it came to Egypt.

“In comparison with my colleagues from other countries, this was the least of his interests,” Mr. Kassem said.

He and other democracy campaigners in Egypt say that when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with Egyptian officials in Sharm el Sheik on Tuesday as part of her preparation for a Middle East peace summit meeting, they expect from her a similar approach to Egyptian human rights and democracy. Even if she does raise the issues, analysts here say, it will have little impact.

That is in sharp contrast to the administration’s aggressive campaign for democracy in 2005 and 2006, which did have an effect and shows shifting American priorities, advocates and analysts say.

“I think the American government does give Egypt leeway to deal with the domestic opposition so long as Egypt supports the American foreign policy in the region,” said Mustapha Kamel el-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. That includes helping Israel and the Palestinians find common ground and opposing the spread of Iran’s influence.

The shift is not so much that American officials no longer mention human rights and democracy; it is more that they do not follow up to ensure results. Instead, there seems to be a tacit understanding whereby Washington criticizes Egypt’s human rights failings, Egypt takes umbrage at the “interference” in domestic affairs and little changes.

For example, last June, President Bush singled out a handful of political dissidents as “unjustly imprisoned,” including Ayman Nour, the onetime presidential candidate and opposition political leader here in Egypt, and greeted democracy advocates, including Saad Eddin Ibrahim, also Egyptian.

Yet Mr. Nour remains in prison, a year into a five-year sentence. Mr. Ibrahim has been living in self-imposed exile, fearful that if he returns to Egypt he will be put in prison, again, for his political activities.

With Mr. Nour in prison and Mr. Ibrahim on the run, with a human rights organization recently shut down, with journalists being imprisoned, with arrests of those out of step with the government, there is little evidence that Egypt — or any other nation in the region — is under any real American pressure for democratic reforms and human rights.

“I like to compare the U.S. to the European settlers of the past century,” said Sateh Noureddine, a columnist at As-Safir, a pro-Syrian newspaper in Lebanon. “The European settler said, ‘I am coming to liberate, to develop, to modernize.’ But after a while he stumbled upon realities and facts that he did not know before and that could not be ignored. This is what is happening to the U.S. today, hence the change in its policies, from an ideological agenda to a pragmatic one. They are looking to protect themselves and their interests.”

Critics of the United States acknowledge that Washington faces resentment no matter what it does. It gets criticized for helping, and for not helping. In a public letter to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, for example, an Iranian dissident journalist, Akbar Ganji, recently explained how Washington’s pro-democracy efforts — regardless of their intent — were not helping in Iran.

“The Bush administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which has in fact been largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the U.S. government, has made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the U.S. and to crush them with impunity,” Mr. Ganji wrote.

In Egypt, there had been a quiet, and grudging acknowledgment that the marginal improvements in the political dynamics here were driven by pressure from Washington in the past few years. Some demonstrations were tolerated. The chanting of slogans against President Hosni Mubarak was also tolerated. In 2005 and part of 2006, even leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood said privately that Washington’s pressure was helping.

But that is over. In recent days the group Human Rights Watch has called on Egypt to free two men active in promoting the rights of the nation’s tiny Shiite Muslim minority. The organization said the arrests appeared to be part of a broad crackdown “on Egyptian rights activists, journalists, and other government critics.”

Four days before Human Rights Watch issued its news release, Egyptian officials quietly issued their own press release announcing that the United States had signed agreements to deliver $301 million in aid to Egypt to help improve the schools, drainage and sanitation, health care and economic reform.

The news release was issued by the state-run news agency, but unlike frequent headlines in the Egyptian press chastising Washington for trying to influence Cairo, this news was not reported in the Egyptian press.

In recent months, Congress has debated the $1.7 billion in aid — which includes the $301 million — that is given to Egypt each year, asking what the United States receives in return. The increased aid has not translated into increased influence on the domestic political process. It has become purely a matter of foreign policy.

“It is in the interest of the United States for Egypt to be a stable Arab country,” said Emad Ghad, an analyst with the government-financed Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Egypt’s behavior is predictable and in line with U.S. interests. The regime, for better or worse, is beneficial to the U.S. administration.”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.