Those of you who monitor US democracy promotion efforts in Egypt — you know who you are — will have noticed that 2009 was eerily quiet in Washington when it came to that issue. Apart from the odd WaPo editorial taking the administration to task (as well as US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey) for not uttering a word about the Egyptian regime's misdeeds, and analysts such as Carnegie's Michele Dunne, former Bush administration officials like Scott Carpenter (both Republicans incidentally) and organizations liked POMED fighting the fight to keep the issue alive at all, you never heard anything coming from the State Department or the White House. Until a few days ago, that is.
That's when Michael Posner, the newish US Assistant Secretary for Human Rights said the following:
The United States is "very concerned about the tragic events in Nagaa Hammadi," Posner told reporters in Cairo. "It's part of what we see as an atmosphere of intolerance."
On January 6, the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas, three gunmen raked worshippers emerging from mass in Nagaa Hammadi with bullets, in the deadliest attack since 2000 when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes.
Reconciliation efforts between Christians and Muslims alone are not enough, Posner said.
"There needs to be prosecution... there needs to be a break in the sense of impunity and there needs to be justice," he said.
Following the attack, residents of Nagaa Hammadi were furious at what they called government attempts to hush up Egypt's sectarian problem.
Three people were arrested and charged with premeditated murder after the attack which also saw one Muslim policeman killed.
But Posner said more information needed to come to light.
"Who was involved? Who may have ordered the killings?" he asked.
Copts, who account for nearly 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, are the Middle East's largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.
Posner was on his first visit to Egypt in his capacity as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, as part of a tour that also took him to Jordan and Israel.
While he was openly critical of the human rights situation in Egypt, he insisted that democracy could not be imported.
"There are serious human rights problems in Egypt," Posner said, citing the emergency law, prison conditions, torture, abuse and religious freedom as issues of concern.
But "we know that in any society change occurs from within... In Egypt we take our lead from what Egyptians are saying or doing. It's an Egyptian discussion," said Posner who met ministers, officials, NGOs and activists during his visit.
A few days later, reacting to the arrest of bloggers and activists that had gone down to Naga Hamadi on solidarity with the victims of the recent attacks there, a State Dept. spokesman then said this:
"The United States is deeply concerned by today's arrests of individuals traveling to the Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi to express support for those tragically killed and injured during" the celebrations," said Mark Toner, acting State Department spokesman.
"According to publicly available evidence, those arrested included bloggers, democracy and religious freedom advocates," he added.
"We call on the government of Egypt to uphold the rights of all to peacefully express their political views and desires for universal freedoms and to ensure due process for those detained," Toner said.
The Naga Hammadi incident was a very serious and troubling event, and Posner raised some of the right questions about it (notably who ordered the hit on Bishop Kirollos, which will be the topic of a later post.) And the arrest of the bloggers was absurd and definitely worth condemning.
But let us stick to the context of US-Egypt relations, and ask: is this a turning point for the Obama administration, which chose Cairo for its (now increasingly irrelevant) speech and worked overtime (particularly Scobey) to repair the damage done to the bilateral relationship by the Bush administration? Or is it just a question of timing, since Posner happened to be on a regional tour?
Because while I might approve of the above statements, I am also moved to ask: where have you been all this time? Posner for instance was supposed to come to Cairo over a month ago; there are good grounds to believe he postponed his trip at the ambassador's insistence. There have been plenty of other occasions to voice concern, but instead these officials waited until after Congress finalized Egypt's aid package (including its incredible new endowment), the sale of a bunch of military hardware including shiny new F-16s and the construction of the new Rafah wall began. Not to mention that you had to wait for a WaPo editorial for any criticism to be made at all.
There is another problem. The Obama administration has said (or its proxies have explained) that it would rather deal with these issues in private than publicly, as the Bush administration did. The idea is that this is more productive. One might give them the benefit of a doubt, but after last month's boost on economic aid and the creation of the endowment, one really wonders if anything is being said behind closed doors at all. And whether the administration felt moved to speak out on an issue regarding Copts because the rights of Christian minorities has long been an important question for certain domestic constituencies.
I know many readers of this blog couldn't care less about US statements on human rights; crocodile tears, they'll say, due to the general support for the Mubarak regime. I'm conflicted about it myself. But we should remember that since we are talking about a clientelist relationship between Cairo and Washington, what is said officially does matter: it sets limits on what will be tolerated and can have a real impact on the ground. We saw that in 2004-2005. I would like to see more statements like this one, and fewer free carrots like the endowment. It's hard to separate these carrots from rewards for the disastrous blockade policy on Gaza — a policy both the US and Egypt should change. Right now, Egypt has gotten money and silence on human rights in exchange for enforcing a humanitarian in Gaza and playing along with a bogus peace process in which America can't even keep its own promises. It's a perverse equation.
So, Mr. Posner, well done on speaking out. We'd like to see more of that. But forgive us for our skepticism, we'll wait until we see change we can believe in.