Senator John McCain is a rare voice both of common sense and--because common sense on Egypt is so rare--of courage when it comes to U.S. relations with that key Arab country.
Last week he issued this statement about human rights in Egypt:
I was encouraged to hear Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledge on Sunday that some ‘innocent youths may have been wrongfully imprisoned’ and that they would soon be released. Yet days later, a court in Egypt sentenced Alaa Abdel Fattah, a liberal democratic activist, to five years in prison along with 20 other human rights activists. Many more prominent youth leaders including Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, and Yara Sallam, as well as American citizen Mohamed Soltan, remain behind bars under a deeply restrictive anti-protest law that infringes on internationally recognized rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Such actions are not in keeping with President al-Sisi’s stated commitments, and in fact call into question the direction in which Egypt is headed.
Egypt has legitimate security concerns, and I strongly believe that the United States must support the Egyptian government’s fight against terrorism and extremism. But there does not have to be a trade-off between democracy and security, and the need to defeat ISIL and other extremists groups in the region must not blind us to our human rights commitments. Fattah’s sentencing is deeply troubling, and I am concerned that the sweeping powers granted under Egypt’s new antiterrorism legislation will serve to institutionalize arbitrary detentions and place undue restrictions on civil society operations that contradict Egypt’s international human rights obligations.
The only way to achieve lasting peace and security in Egypt is by creating pluralistic democratic institutions and respecting human rights. The people of Egypt have paid a heavy price in their fight for freedom and democracy, and they remain steadfast in their commitment to a better future. I urge President al-Sisi to fulfill his pledge and release those who have been wrongfully imprisoned not only because it is just, but because it is the best path to ensure Egypt’s stability and security.
McCain has the balance between security and liberty just right: Egypt has very grave security concerns, but they will not be met by jailing anyone who dares criticize the Sisi government. In fact Sisi came to power in a wave of protests against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and that wave included protesters who were moderate, centrist, liberal, secular, democratic groups and individuals. Now Sisi is having them imprisoned if they do not toe his line. That’s not a formula for stability in Egypt. If repression were the right formula, Hosni Mubarak would still be in power. For additional information on the human rights situation in Egypt, take a look at the new report by the Arab Network for Human Rights, just issued. The 75-page report concludes that there are 42,000 people detained not for real crimes but for protesting against the government, criticizing the government, practicing journalism, blogging, and in general raising their voices against the current repression.
Kudos to McCain for continuing to watch Egypt carefully, and for speaking out. American policy toward Egypt must consist of more than issuing Sisi a blank check.