In an embarrassing setback for the Obama administration, the Egyptian government stepped up its crackdown on freedom of the press and political dissent just one day after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo, raising new questions about the White House’s support for an increasingly repressive regime.
During the Sunday visit, Kerry vowed to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Cairo and clear the way for the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters — assistance that is now coming under withering criticism following the conviction of three journalists on charges of spreading false news and conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, members of Congress, including some Democrats, condemned the convictions and called for an overhaul of U.S. funding to Egypt, exposing a disconnect between the president, members of his own party, and Egyptian activists.
"This is not the way a democracy, or even a country in transition back to a democracy, should act," Rep. Adam Schiff, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of Press, said on Monday.
In a statement to Foreign Policy, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said the convictions of the reporters "should be reversed immediately."
The statements of outrage aren’t just talk. Schiff, a California Democrat, will propose an amendment on Tuesday that would cut and restructure American aid to Egypt, chopping off almost a third of security assistance funding to Cairo and putting the savings into economic assistance programs related to education, democracy and civil society. Egypt, Schiff said, "is too important to the region and to the world for the United States to stand idly by."
On the Senate side, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the head of the panel that appropriates foreign aid, said "further aid should be withheld" until Egypt demonstrates a basic commitment to justice and human rights.
"The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism," Leahy said in a statement.
That’s bad news for the Obama administration, which has been lobbying Congress for months to continue assistance to Egypt, which it views as a vital albeit troublesome Middle Eastern ally. The standoff on Capitol Hill also highlights a broader challenge for the White House: balancing its stated support for human rights and political freedom in the Middle East with its desperate need to maintain stability in one of the region’s most powerful countries while Syria and Iraq disintegrate.
Monday’s sentencing of two al Jazeera journalists to seven years in jail and one to 10 years is only the latest action to draw international criticism of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and place pressure on the Obama administration to rein in its longtime Arab ally.
On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced more than 180 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for allegedly assaulting a police headquarters in the country’s south. Amnesty International characterized the verdicts as "the latest example of the Egyptian judiciary’s bid to crush dissent."
Despite the growing whiff of authoritarianism, Kerry publicized on Sunday that the U.S. recently released $575 million in aid for Egypt’s military and would deliver attack helicopters to the government imminently. "I am confident…that the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon," said Kerry, the most senior Obama administration official to meet Sisi since his presidential inauguration this month.
Last year, Washington froze the lion’s share of its $1.3 billion in yearly military assistance to Egypt after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
On Sunday, Kerry said Sisi gave him a "very strong sense of his commitment" to reforming the country’s judicial processes and human rights laws — but many Egypt experts doubted the sincerity of Kerry’s assurances.
"I was actually surprised by Kerry’s remarks," Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said in an interview. "The U.S. has been careful not to criticize Sisi too much, but here was Kerry offering praise for Sisi despite his showing no effort to improve the human rights situation at all."
The State Department pointed to a new statement by Kerry on Monday condemning the conviction of the three journalists, but the remarks did not mention any consequences for Cairo and the department even downplayed the timing of the decision by Egypt’s famously corrupt court system.
"I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about the timing," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at the daily briefing on Monday. "As you know, there is a judicial process here."
Amy Hawthorne, a former State Department appointee who focused on Egypt during Obama’s first term, said the administration is set on prioritizing its strategic relationship with Cairo above concerns about human rights.
"This administration doesn’t believe that the human rights situation in Egypt constitutes a crisis," said Hawthorne, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Some analysts like me really worry that if this continues, it’s going to create a situation in Egypt that could radicalize [the opposition] and make our security interests in Egypt difficult to continue."