01/24/2014 07:25 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Egypt: Back to Square One for the United States

It's been three years since the January 25, 2011 protests that led to the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship. The bombings this week in Cairo are just one example of how ongoing political instability continues to plague the country with repression and violence. Last week in Cairo, some of the young Egyptians who helped organize the Tahrir Square demonstrations told me that they now wonder where it all went wrong and what happened to the support they were promised from Washington.

"We're back to the days of Mubarak, or even worse," several told me. The new interim government, installed by the military after the July 2013 coup against the elected civilian President Morsi, has now turned violently against human rights defenders and liberal secular activists.

Through its support of the current, military-backed regime, the United States government is implicated in the series of repressive measures taken against some of organizers of the original Tahrir protests so enthusiastically supported by President Obama three years ago.

President Obama told them in February 2011:

To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. Those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly represent the greatness of the Egyptian people... The American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world we want our children to grow up in. The word Tahrir means liberation... We saw in those protestors the moral force of non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw, from Selma to South Africa.

While those words were welcome, the United States has failed to move beyond an approach where it supports the central power in Cairo -- whether Mubarak, direct military rule by the Supreme Council of Armed Forced, the Muslim Brotherhood or the current military-backed government. Last week, Congress approved an additional $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt, continuing the U.S. governments unwavering course of supporting whoever happens to be in power and crossing their fingers that it will lead to more stability. It's a policy decision rooted in major goals that include maintaining military-to-military cooperation on counter-terrorism, stability in the Suez Canal, continued adherence to the Camp David Accords, and support for the U.S. manufacturing base -- core interests that will be put at risk if political instability, exacerbated by the government's repressive methods continues in Egypt. This approach has lost the United States friends, respect and credibility from virtually all political sides in Egypt and across the region. Once again, the United States now finds itself supporting a repressive dictator and firmly on the wrong side of history.

The Egyptian government's crackdown is enabled by its iron grip on political discussion, its dominance of the media, muted criticism from international allies, apparent overwhelming public support and last week's 98 percent endorsement in a referendum vote on a new constitution.

After the military-backed government forcibly removed two large sit-ins of Morsi supporters in Cairo last August, leaving over 800 dead, their new targets are liberal activists and human rights defenders. In recent weeks, a new wave of repression has seen NGO offices raided, their staff seized and liberals charged with insulting the judiciary on twitter. Secret police agents are once again paying warning visits to those who criticize the government on Facebook, and leading activists remain in jail for alleged violations of Egypt's new anti-protest laws. TV satirist Bassem Youssef -- often referred to as Egypt's Jon Stewart -- has been pulled off Egyptian television, while other journalists have been arrested and media outlets critical of the government are shut down. Some of the most prominent organizers and participants in the 2011 Tahrir protests are in jail convicted of breaking new anti-protest laws.

There is also a violent witch-hunt against human rights defenders, who are being smeared and targeted by the press and state authorities. One in her twenties told me how her emails were hacked. Her political and private messages were copied and posted on social media sites. Television host Abdel-Rehim Ali has aired recordings of phone calls made by young liberal activists, evidence he suggested that they were serving a foreign agenda. Claims that human rights activists are proxies of the West is a popular and dangerous charge regularly made by Egyptian government loyalists.

Last week prominent Egyptian newspaper editor Mostafa Bakry appeared on a major TV talk show, where he warned President Obama and his "puppets" that "we will enter their houses, and we will kill them one by one." He speculated that the United States is planning to assassinate General Sisi. "There is a plot to kill General Sisi, and the security services know it well," he said, and suggested that this in turn could lead to Egyptians rising up in a "revolution to kill the Americans in the streets".

Three years ago President Obama assured the Middle East of "a new chapter in American diplomacy," but it never materialized. Instead, at various times in recent months, despite the new wave of crackdown, senior U.S. officials have declared that the new Egyptian government is on the road to democracy.

It's hard for local human rights defenders to share that view. One asked me not to identify him for safety reasons, but said that, "Some things are better than under Mubarak -- there's no administrative detention and torture is not systematic. But other things are worse -- mass killings are new and media criticism of the government is even less than before. The judiciary under Mubarak wasn't independent, but there were some standards. The anti-protest law is new. Mubarak used anti-protest laws from 1914, but after 2005 some demonstrations were in practice tolerated, and there was a sort of mutual understanding between the regime and the opposition about what was allowed. Now we're not just back to the Mubarak era, we've become 1960s Eastern Europe."

The United States should urgently overhaul its approach to Egypt, to press for an inclusive civilian government through respect for human rights and the rule of law. That's what will bring long-term stability, and that's what those who risked their lives three years ago are entitled to expect.