The US, Egypt, and Rights

Taking a clear stand for human rights is commendable, even if it unleashes criticism – sometimes from surprising sources.

Consider the Bush administration's decision to publicly protest the prosecution of Egyptian rights campaigner Saad Eddin Ibrahim – and to back its protest with a cutoff of new aid for Egypt. It was a warranted move, given the facts of the case.

The sociology professor and activist, who also holds American citizenship, faces seven years at hard labor for allegedly misusing money donated to his civil-society think tank by the European Union and for tarnishing Egypt's image by his criticism of the government.

The EU says it monitored the use of its funds and saw no problem. But Mr. Ibrahim's persistent efforts to register more voters and to highlight mistreatment of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority obviously gave the Mubarak regime problems.

International human rights groups have welcomed the US move – particularly if it signals a new activism on rights by Washington. Egypt's own rights community, however, has circled the nationalistic wagons. From more liberal activists to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood – a frequent target of government crackdowns – the response has been resentment of any US attempt to use economic pressure to influence Egyptian policies.

Predictably, some critics raise the double-standard argument – that the same kind of pressures would never be brought to bear on Israel. That argument can't be easily brushed aside. Israeli policies such as destruction of homes in retaliation for suicide bombings and continued expansion of settlements on Palestinian land raise serious human-rights concerns. The US has economic leverage to help curb that activity too.

The strong stand on the Ibrahim case is in line with administration hopes to instill more respect for human rights and democracy in the Mideast. For it to have the desired impact, consistent follow-up is needed.

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