New U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Stephen Beecroft is expected to arrive in Cairo in the coming weeks to start work. Although he doesn't decide U.S. policy on Egypt, he will be the U.S. official who gets to explain it to Egypt's government and people, setting the tone for how the U.S. embassy in Cairo operates and influencing U.S. credibility in Egypt and the region.
As he takes his post, Egypt's authoritarian government under President Sisi is poised to slip further into political crisis. In the face of Sisi's repression, the U.S. government is largely silent, prioritizing its military relationship with Egypt over human rights concerns. Although legislation passed last week lists conditions on human rights progress being met before further American military aid can be delivered, it also included provisions allowing the U.S. Secretary of State to waive those conditions.
Here are five helpful things Ambassador Beecroft can do when he arrives in Egypt:
1. Meet Civil Society Activists
Human rights activists told me in Cairo last month they're expecting their organizations to be raided soon and shut down in a new government attack aimed at NGOs. Some staff have already fled the country, and others jailed. Ambassador Beecroft should offer to visit NGO offices under threat in a show of support for their work.
2. See the Injustice
The ambassador should direct his staff to be available to observe trials if human rights activists being prosecuted want them to. Officials from the EU and other countries often send observers to trials of dissidents. Attending trials would give the ambassador a firsthand account of the injustice of Egypt's judicial system, and he should consider attending himself if the activist(s) on trial think it would help their situations.
3. Don't Go it Alone
Ambassador Beecroft should encourage his staff to meet Egyptian government officials and civil society leaders along with diplomats from other countries, to show a common front against repression. Being part of a team with EU officials in meetings, for example, sends an important signal about multilateral concerns about the direction Egypt is going. The ambassador could lead by example, meeting activists under threat with ambassadors from other countries.
4. Show Egypt's Not Being Singled Out
Part of the Egyptian government's sensitivity to criticism from the United States is the impression that it's being picked on for political reasons. The U.S. embassy in Cairo has done a poor job of countering these allegations and the new ambassador can do some simple things to show that U.S. rhetoric on human rights is not confined to Egypt. These include having the March 2013 document on Supporting Human Rights Defenders, issued by the State Department, translated into Arabic and posted on the embassy website to show that supporting activists is something American embassies are supposed to do worldwide, not just in Egypt. He can also have translated and posted on the embassy website the September 2014 president directive on supporting civil society, which instructs all U.S. agencies engaged abroad everywhere to promote and protect civil society.
5. Don't be cowed by media attacks
The new ambassador can expect some vilification form the Egyptian media - his predecessor Anne Patterson was regularly attacked. He should resist the temptation to be quiet and retreat from public appearances on human rights issues or to mute criticism of the Egyptian authorities. He should regularly hold briefings with local and international media based in Egypt, outlining U.S. policy on civil society to explain the reasoning when the U.S. comments - or doesn't - on human rights issues.