Is Obama starting to prod Egypt on human rights?

Many human rights and democracy activists in the Middle East are disillusioned with Obama's lack of action. But Egypt's acceptance today of 21 human rights recommendations after a visit by Vice President Biden may signal a shift.

By , Correspondent

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    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, met with US Vice President Joe Biden, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, Monday.
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Egypt presented a rosy picture of its human rights credentials today, promising to implement most of the recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council as part of a quadrennial review process.

Egypt, which had accepted 119 of the council's 165 recommendations in February, agreed to another 21 after Vice President Joe Biden had publicly urged it to implement the recommendations on a visit here earlier this week. They included those calling for better treatment of religious minorities, changes in its penal code to bring it into line with the UN Convention Against Torture, and the establishment of a fully independent electoral commission.

Human rights organizations are not hopeful that Egypt will live up to the commitments it made to the council, and pointed out that the regime has already violated the promises it made in February. But Egypt's move comes after the US has begun to show a slight shift in policy by nudging Egypt on human rights and reform.

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“Biden could have easily gone to Egypt and spoken only about Gaza and Iran. I think it's notable that he raised those issues in Egypt,” says Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It's not a really high level of engagement, but at least these issues are starting to reemerge in the US-Egypt relationship.”

Ms. Dunne says she does not expect the US to exert serious pressure, such as using aid as leverage to exert pressure for reform. But Biden's soft public chastisement of Egypt could be evidence that President Obama's administration is responding to widespread disappointment that it has largely ignored human rights and democracy promotion, favoring instead stability and progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

That criticism was on display here this week, as a consortium of Egyptian civil society groups released a report detailing violations of the 119 UNHRC recommendations Egypt had already agreed to. They expressed frustration that the West – particularly the US, which for years has sent more foreign aid to Egypt than any country except Israel – seems loath to apply external pressure on Egypt to improve its human rights record. Egypt rejected outright 21 of the Council's 165 recommendations.

“I think the current American administration doesn't care about the human rights issue and about religious freedom in Egypt,” says Emad Gad, an analyst with the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He says Egypt is adept at pledging reform in arenas such as the Human Rights Council only to then ignore the implementation on the ground.

“This is one of the problems with the Universal Periodic Review” of the Human Rights Council, agrees Moataz El Fegiery, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the organizations that released the report. “Usually governments like Egypt which do not have the political will to improve human rights situations on the ground, they pay no cost.”

Egypt last month extended its state of emergency by two years, after promising in February to replace the emergency law with antiterrorism legislation. The emergency law allows indefinite detention without charge, and has often been used against activists and journalists rather than the terrorists and drug traffickers the government says it is intended for.

According to the report released by the Egyptian NGOs, Egypt has continued to detain activists and bloggers, and torture by police and security forces has continued unabated. Egypt on Friday rejected three recommendations asking it to adopt international conventions against torture.

Significantly, the statement of the US delegate to the Human Rights Council expressed concern about the imprisonment of bloggers, as well as reports of fraud and interference with access to polling stations during elections last week for Egypt’s upper house of parliament. The delegate, John Mariz, praised some of Egypt’s efforts at reforms while expressing concern with other areas, including the killing of migrants on Egypt’s border and the renewal of the emergency law.

The US, he said, also “regrets Egypt’s decision not to support a significant number of recommendations with respect to religion and political liberty.”

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