On Wednesday morning, May 20th, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee On Middle East and North Africa, looking at the state of Egypt after the ousting of President MohammadMorsi. This hearing follows the assassination of judges and prosecutors in Sinai this past Saturday when Morsi was sentenced to death. Recently there has an increase in attacks on judges in Egypt following convictions of Muslim Brotherhood members.
During the hearing, both the representatives and the witnesses emphasized the importance of continuing to strengthen our relationship with Egypt, while not condoning the social injustices taking place under Sisi’s regime. The witnesses stressed the importance of Egypt striking the balance between security and democracy, and argued for an increased military relationship with Egypt as Sisi continues his efforts against Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadist groups in the Sinai.
Egypt’s president, Abdel el-Sisi, has reportedly destroyed 80% of weapon smuggling tunnels leading out of the country. The current Egyptian government has also begun arresting members of the Muslim Brotherhood and sentenced Morsi to death. All three of the witnesses agreed that they did not believe Morsi and affiliates will eventually be executed, but Mr. Tadros argues that the government is using the ruling in order to send a message that they are willing to take all necessary steps to stop Muslim Brotherhood from growing and continuing to fight the government.
In response to questions posed by Rep Lois Frankel (D-FL), Dr. Eric Trager urged the U.S. to better coordinate its policy on Libya and Sinai with Egypt. The panelists agreed that there is a real threat to Egypt from the Islamic State, specifically coming from Libya.
While commenting Russian relations with Egypt, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) turned heads when he stated, “I think it’s a good thing that the Russians are helping Sisi”. The representative expressed that he thought it was “outrageous” that the U.S. gave Egypt helicopters without proper defense mechanisms to counter jihadist attacks. Rohrabacher argues Russia selling weapons to Egypt is a “good thing” because it will strengthen the military when fighting jihadists.
The witnesses disagreed arguing that relations between Russia and Egypt pose a problem to the United States, who should keep an eye on the relationship between Russia and Egypt. Their opinions stemmed from the concern that unlike the United States, Russia won’t push for more democracy and improved human rights.
Democracy was a strong theme throughout course of the hearing. Dr. Okail revealed that Egyptian media speaks favorably of Russia because it provides a simple relationship. Russia does not push for greater democracy as the United States does. Mr. Tadros argued that the United States should invest in creating Egyptian institutions that allow citizens to raise concerns about their government in a democratic manner. The witnesses revealed that the current Egyptian Regime, under Sisi, has been incredibly restrictive about the press and TV programs. Dr. Okail commented on the importance of the Internet and pushing for an unrestricted Internet where people can have a cyber forum to voice their concerns, whether that be through Facebook or other websites. She revealed that currently, many Egyptian civilians do not have access to the Internet.
The lack of free speech in Egypt was concerning to the panelists and representatives alike. Mr. Tadros revealed that atheists have received prison sentences up to three years for posts on Facebook, and that human rights defenders, both domestic and international, have been arrested. All three panelists agreed that the U.S. cannot influence Egypt in a more democratic direction while the government still faces a threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. Ultimately, all three witnesses agreed that the United State’s idea of democracy can’t be sustained in Egypt until new, independent institutions are created to defend it.
Egypt remains an important ally because of the critical role they play in control of the Suarez canal and as a buffer between territories controlled by the Islamic State. The United States needs to continue strengthening our military relationship with Egypt while condemning the government’s infringement on democratic rights such as free speech.