On the eve of the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, scheduled to take place in Cairo on August 2, the Egyptian authorities are demonstrating that they have not been paying attention to the broader efforts to counter violent extremism advanced by the Obama administration in recent months.
Instead of protecting space for independent civil society organizations to operate freely, the Egyptian government has stepped up its harassment and disruption of the legitimate activities of human rights organizations.
During his recent visit to Kenya, President Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of human rights and providing space for independent civil society organizations to operate freely and to criticize government policies as essential elements in effective counterterrorism policy. These remarks outline the U.S. government's recent efforts to embrace a broader approach to cooperation in the area of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism, going beyond military responses and cooperation between security forces to emphasize rule of law, respect for human rights, and space for civil society and peaceful dissent.
"If in reaction to terrorism you are restricting legitimate organizations, reducing the scope of peaceful organization, then that can have the inadvertent effect of actually increasing the pool of recruits for terrorism and resentment in communities that feel marginalized," said President Obama last week.
On July 30 the Egyptian authorities notified the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC), one of Egypt's leading independent human rights organizations, that it is under investigation by a judicial committee. This is a continuation of a sustained pattern of harassment and intimidation directed against independent civil society organizations and non-violent government critics in Egypt. This has included detention and prosecution of staff members, forced closure of organizations, travel bans and even death threats against prominent activists.
Ironically, the judicial investigation relates to a notorious case that resulted in the closure of the Egypt offices of several leading U.S. based human rights organizations, and to the prosecution of 43 of their employees, including 16 American citizens. The case sparked strong protests from Washington when it was initiated in 2011 and when the sentences were imposed in 2013.
The decision to move against the HMLC immediately prior to the strategic dialogue suggests that the Egyptian authorities will not be receptive to any concerns about human rights and the need to respect the free operation of civil society organizations that the U.S. government may raise in the course of the dialogue.
Nonetheless, Secretary Kerry should not simply overlook human rights concerns during the strategic dialogue. The United States will undermine its own credibility if it is seen to be changing its messages on human rights and the importance of free, independent civil society to suit its audience.
What was right for the president in Nairobi should also be right for Secretary Kerry in Cairo. Secretary Kerry must point out to his Egyptian interlocutors in the course of the dialogue that Egypt's partnership with the United States is harmed by violations of human rights, including by efforts to restrict the activities of independent civil society organizations like the HMLC.