Egypt's human rights situation is going from ugly to uglier

And it's happening while the Obama administration is considering issuing a national security waiver to provide more weapons and cash to the country's military rulers.

Nameer Galal/AP/File
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi are detained during clashes with riot police in Cairo, Oct. 6, 2013. Egypt's crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country's biggest round-up in nearly two decades.

Egypt's deteriorating human rights situation in the past three years has had something of a boiled frog effect to it - things have gotten worse just gradually enough that the country's unfolding problems have been pushed to the margins.

But the severe abuses meted out to Egyptian citizens are crushing any hopes of a pluralistic, truly democratic society any time soon. And by "soon" think at least a decade.

Too pessimistic? Perhaps. But consider the ramifications of jails filled with 16,000 political activists; torture in detention centers and police stations reported to be growing more prevalent, not less so; and the taboo broken last August when the military attacked a Muslim Brotherhood protest camp at Rabaa al-Adawey square. The group has since been outlawed. And while it's true that the group's supporters are bearing the brunt of the crackdown, it goes much wider. 

Meanwhile the US is considering a resumption of full military aid to Egypt, including delayed Apache attack helicopters the country's military rulers say they need to fight Islamist militants in the troubled Sinai peninsula. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Appropriations Committee that the US would like to resume full aid but that he has some reservations.

"We want this interim transitional government to succeed. We are committed to try to help make that happen, but they need to help us to help them at the same time by implementing some of the reforms that we’ve been talking with them about with respect to inclusivity, journalists, some of the arrests and so forth," he said, adding that the Obama administration would decide "soon" on arms transfers. 

But whether Egypt's presidential elections go ahead (they've been promised to be finished by some time before July) and whether they're relatively fair (which seems unlikely given that so many political activists are in jail) the fact is that Egypt is moving backwards on basic human rights. And the US, which often trumpets human rights abroad, is stuck in yet another situation where its hypocrisy erodes whatever moral standing it has to criticize the rights records of governments it opposes.

It's hard to see the massacre at Rabaa, with at least 900 Egyptian citizens killed by security forces, as anything but deliberately designed to send a message that state terror was back, with a vengeance.

Here's how the Global Post, which ran a lengthy and highly useful reconstruction of the events of Aug. 14 at the end of February, describes the event.

This GlobalPost reconstruction — based on eyewitness interviews, visits to the scene, first-hand observation on Aug. 14, and an examination of video and photographic evidence — shows that thousands of peaceful demonstrators were trapped inside the camp as security forces mounted often indiscriminate attacks on the crowds.

... More than 100 demonstrators died during a police attack on the site on July 8 and clashes around its fringes on July 27, hardening their resolve to fight against the authorities. Afterward, their numbers swelled.

... The demonstrators were mostly unarmed. A small group of men launched a fight back with a limited supply of guns, as well as Molotov cocktails and stones, from an unfinished building on the camp’s southern flank, and in response, police unleashed lethal and indiscriminate force on the sit-in as a whole. It is unclear who fired the first shots. But evidence gathered by GlobalPost indicates that security forces disproportionately deployed live ammunition against protesters rather than tear gas, water cannons, or other standard crowd-clearing tools.

Human Rights Watch's own review of events that day found no justification for the massive use of deadly force by the Egyptian state and called the massacre “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.”

Consider that for a moment. Egypt's monarchy was overthrown in a free officers coup, it fought a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against Al Qaeda-style militants in the 1980s and 1990s, and has been ruled by military-backed dictators for over 40 years. During that time, there have been plenty of abuses – a crucial spark for the Jan. 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak was the torture and murder by police of a young businessman in Alexandria – but nothing on this scale.

And public spectacles of violence have a way of affecting societies far beyond those immediately touched by tragedy. Just consider how the shooting of four unarmed protesters against the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia at Kent State in May 1970 resonated in US politics for decades. A photo of a distraught young women grieving over the body of one of the dead won the Pulitzer prize, Neil Young composed his classic "Ohio" about the shootings a few weeks later, and campus protests in response paralyzed colleges and universities across the country. 

To this day, Kent State is remembered as the high point of a heavily polarized and dangerous moment in American political life, where seething anti-war youth confronted a paranoid government and the whiff of revolution hung in the air. All in a functioning democracy with a culture of respect for the rule of law dating back 200 years.

Now consider Rabaa, a profoundly damaging episode for Egypt. Issandr El Amrani, the Egypt and North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, told a recent panel at Harvard that the level of distrust towards the government among Muslim Brotherhood officials and supporters is the lowest he's ever seen it. He sees no chance for any kind of political reconciliation anytime soon.

The Associated Press, citing data provided by officials at Egypt's Interior Ministry and the military, reports that among the 16,000 people current in detention for political activity about 3,000 are mid-ranking or senior Brotherhood officials.

While the interim military government, headed by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, wants to erase the group's political influence, political Islam as a force in Egypt has proven resilient over decades of state repression, and millions of Brotherhood supporters aren't just going to disappear. While many millions of Egyptians are delighted with the current state of affairs – Sissi is widely expected to run for president and win – a recipe for prolonged conflict has been stirred.

The military and the courts behave with outright contempt for the principles of democracy. Just today a reporter for a newspaper controlled by the Brotherhood was sentenced to a year of hard labor for the crime of campaigning against the country's new Constitution during the referendum that approved the document in January.

And it's not just the Muslim Brotherhood. There are the Al Jazeera journalists facing lengthy prison sentences on trumped up terrorism charges and liberal political activists like Ahmed Mahir, a key organizer of the 2011 protests at Tahrir, who are facing jail for holding illegal demonstrations.

Last May, Kerry issued a national security waiver allowing $1.3 billion of arms transfers to Egypt, even as a group of over 40 employees working on democracy promotion for non-government organizations, a number of them US citizens, faced trial for their professional work. A few weeks later the NGO workers were sentenced to prison sentences (though most of the foreigners had already fled the country) and within two months the military had seized power.

For decades, the consistent message from the US to Egypt has been that American security concerns, particularly the country's security cooperation with Israel, trump human rights and democracy concerns. Kerry's decision on restarting arms sales will signal whether the Obama administration wants to make a break with the past. 

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