As Trump Moves to Label Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Group, US Military Aid to Egypt Funds Human Rights Abuses
“Amnesty is calling for the U.S. to halt the transfer of tear gas, small arms, ammunition and other repressive equipment, including some helicopters to the Egyptian military and security forces.”
The White House announced on Tuesday that President Donald Trump is pushing to designate Egypt-based Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
As the United States continues to support Egypt with an annual military aid package of $1.3 billion, the U.S. is also funding ongoing human rights violations by the Egyptian military and security forces.
Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has overseen what Human Rights Watch calls the “worst human rights crisis in Egypt in recent decades, including near-total impunity for abuses by the military and security forces.”
Sisi took power in July 2013 in a military coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Egyptian authorities have executed at least 130 people. Sisi’s government has led a crackdown on dissent of all kinds: civil society groups say there are currently 60,000 political prisoners in jail.
“Even during three decades of muzzling civil society under [President Hosni] Mubarak, activists in a wide range of civil activity, from the media, health and law to even street theater groups, were able to take some action,” said Geoffrey Mock, Egypt Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA, “now that space is nearly entirely shut down.”
The Trump administration’s move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists comes after Sisi’s visit to the White House on April 9, during which he asked Trump to make the change. This has been a long-standing request of Sisi’s, and the U.S. administration has considered it – the Obama administration refused, but ex-Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was a key proponent. The group has been linked to terrorist attacks over its 90-year history and may have as many as one million members across 20 or more countries.
U.S. support for the Egyptian military is unwavering; the country is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel, which receives $3.3 billion. Over the past 40 years, the U.S. has provided Egypt with $47 billion in military aid, along with $24 billion in economic assistance.
As Long as Egypt Fights Terrorism, US Military Aid Ignores Growing Human Rights Abuses
Both the Egyptian and U.S. governments claim the military aid program is needed to fight terrorism and maintain stability, especially in the North Sinai region where the military has fought groups linked to the Islamic State. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Sisi use terrorist attacks to justify all aspects of the military campaign and violations of rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
“Whenever human rights abuses are invoked in Egypt, the government’s reflexive response is to talk about the need to fight terrorism,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Advocacy and Communications Director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “When addressed to the West, the idea behind that argument is that Egypt’s military is defending not only their country but the whole world. But whoever heeds that pretext, they’re not looking closer.”
In North Sinai, the Egyptian military’s counterterrorism campaign has been largely ineffective while destroying tens of thousands of buildings and demolishing the city of Rafah on the border with Gaza. The city was home to 70,000 people. At least 420,000 people in the area have been in urgent need of humanitarian aid since early 2018, as the military restricts movement and access to food.
Sisi’s stated policy has been to “restore stability and security” by “all brute force,” but it hasn’t succeeded.
“The great majority of the time, the crackdown is not against terrorists but against anyone who opposes the regime,” said Benchemsi.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization Will Support Sisi’s Military Tactics
The Trump administration’s move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is an endorsement of Sisi’s policies of repression and rights abuses.
In early April, Reuters published a report on the killing of over 460 alleged Islamist militants since the middle of 2015. Egypt’s Interior Ministry claims that 320 of them were terrorists and 117 were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the families and friends of many of these victims say they had no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Cousins Souhail Ahmed and Zakaria Mahmoud, for example, left their home in Damietta on a road trip in July 2017, but were killed five days later in what the Interior Ministry claimed was a shootout between Islamist militants and security forces. But according to independent forensic experts, Mahmoud’s gunshot wounds suggested an execution-style killing, while Ahmed showed no gunshot wounds or obvious cause of death.
Some Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt have planned violent attacks against the Sisi government, but they have done so by forming separate factions, such as Liwa Al-Thawra and Hasm. The U.S. State Department designated these groups as terrorist organizations in January 2018. Many Muslim Brotherhood groups, especially those in Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region, explicitly condemn violence.
The Brotherhood responded to Trump’s move in a statement on their website: “We will remain… steadfast in our work in accordance with our moderate and peaceful thinking and what we believe to be right, for honest and constructive cooperation to serve the communities in which we live and humanity as a whole.”
Egypt has identified this designation as a key step in maintaining its U.S. patronage and has worked hard to push for it. Alongside Sisi’s friendship with Trump, the Egyptian government hired U.S. public relations firm Weber Shandwick in January 2017 to promote Egypt’s “strategic partnership with the United States” and its “leading role in managing regional risks.” Weber Shandwick ended the $1.2 million-per-year contract in July of that year, but not before launching a campaign entitled “Egypt Forward” on egyptfwd.org.
The first article on the website was titled “What the World Needs To Know About the Muslim Brotherhood” and blamed the group for a 2016 terrorist attack in Cairo that killed dozens of Christians. But the Islamic State had already claimed they carried out the bombing. The PR campaign also included setting up meetings for Egyptian lawmakers on Capitol Hill, preparing their talking points and prepping U.S. legislators for these meetings. This may have influenced Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign to pass a bill that would have pushed the Secretary of State to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists.
Endorsement of Sisi’s Policies Moves Forward Despite Debate Among US Legislators
Some U.S. lawmakers still question the unconditional support for Egypt’s military.
Ahead of Sisi’s visit to The White House in April, Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Reps. Michael McCaul, Ted Deutch and Joe Wilson wrote the Egyptian president and asked him to address “arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances.” The letter referenced a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that claimed Egypt had “failed ‘to provide regular access for U.S. officials to monitor such assistance in areas where the assistance is used.’”
Senators James Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Bob Menendez, the senior Democrat on the committee, wrote Pompeo a letter calling for Trump and him to discuss the “erosion of political and human rights” with Sisi. Senators Ben Cardin and Republican Lindsey Graham have also called for possible cuts to Egypt’s military aid package.
But pressure on the Egyptian government is brief and inconsistent.
In 2017, the U.S. froze $195 million in military aid to Egypt, calling for the government to reverse a law that heavily restricted international aid groups’ operations in the country and to overturn convictions against some foreign citizens. Sisi refused to comply with either request, but in July 2018, the U.S. reinstated the aid. The government intensified restrictions on civil society and attempted to send Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh to jail for eight years for posting a video on Facebook describing the sexual harassment she faced on the streets of Cairo. She was later deported.
U.S. military aid for Egypt may be too expansive to attach human rights conditions to the whole program, but some groups see a possible way through restricting the types of arms that can be sold.
“Amnesty is calling for the U.S. to halt the transfer of tear gas, small arms, ammunition and other repressive equipment, including some helicopters to the Egyptian military and security forces,” said Amnesty International’s Geoffrey Mock. “These particular items have been documented as being used in human rights violations by military, security and police forces. We also want the government to put in place the proper conditions and end-use monitoring that will hold the Egyptian government accountable and responsible for use of these funds.”
But NGOs like Amnesty have also focused on the fact that the U.S. is supporting the Egyptian government to use tactics that are fundamentally ineffective and may backfire.
“The idea that stability and human rights are opposing goals is mistaken. In fact, considering the rising tide of discontent in Egypt and the continuing violence of armed groups throughout the region, it’s hard to argue that stability policy brings stability for more than a short term period,” said Mock. “We are concerned that without reform leading to a society supportive of human rights, change will ultimately come in a way that will be more explosive.”