US government takes stance on human rights in Egypt and Uganda


US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Egypt for a stopover of a few hours before he was to start on a frantic tour to Jordan, France and Belgium to co-ordinate a response to the crisis in Iraq. 

Kerry’s visit to Egypt had not been announced in advance. He met with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and then held a joint press conference on Sunday evening with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry.

At the conference, Kerry said that 10 Apache helicopters would be delivered to Egypt’s government “very soon” to enable it to step up the military pressure on jihadist groups operating in the Sinai, and told reporters that Sisi had the US’s “strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” 

Another State Department official (not named in reports) struck the same note of promising financial support while cautioning the Egyptian government about human rights and its persecution of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

This official told journalists that the US had decided to release 575 million dollars in funds that had been suspended after the coup in July 2013, funds that will be used to pay existing defence contracts, but that Washington has “serious concerns about the political environment,” that it was not convinced that the MB poses a security risk to Egypt, and that it believed the new Egyptian government “need[s] to include, and find ways to reach out to, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

More suspended funds, worth around 600 million dollars, could be released, this official said, “once there is evidence that Sisi’s government is ruling in a truly democratic fashion.” 

On Saturday, June 21, police broke up a demonstration in Cairo against a protest law in terms of which some leftist activists have been sentenced to jail terms; the most recent reports about Saturday’s protests are that 24 people had been detained pending an investigation, so it is possible that there will be prosecutions for these demonstrations, too.

On the same day, a court in Minya confirmed the death sentences of 183 people, including MB Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, for their roles in deadly violence that wracked Minya in August last year. Badie was sentenced to death in a separate case relating to deaths in Cairo on Thursday, June 19.

After seven journalists received heavy jail sentences in an Egyptian court on June 23, the White House called the sentences “a blow to democratic progress in Egypt”, and Kerry said the sentences were “chilling” and “draconian”. 

The statements made by officials from the Obama administration confirm the view that Egypt’s international relations have changed permanently, and that the US will not in the foreseeable future be as influential in Cairo as it was in the three decades after Anwar Sadat signed the peace deal with Israel in 1979.

Because of the nature and size of US aid to Egypt – largely conditional on arms purchases, and annually less by a factor of 10 than Egypt has received from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the past 10 months – the aid does not represent a very persuasive diplomatic tool.

The US’s strange insistence on rehabilitating the shattered and hated MB as a political actor, and its clearly false statement that the group poses no security risk, further limit the extent to which Washington will be able to exert any pressure in Egypt. 

On Thursday, June 19, the US government took some measures against Uganda in response to the discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Bill law passed during February. The measures that the US has taken were to impose visa restrictions, to cancel a joint regional military exercise, and to suspend 2.4 million dollars in funding for a community policing programme. 

According to a statement from the White House, the various steps were taken to 1) “restrict the entry into the US of specific Ugandan individuals involved in serious violations or abuses of human rights, including those determined to have committed such violations or abuses against LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] individuals,” 2) over concerns that the Ugandan police are involved in persecution (a police raid on a US-funded clinic and research facility at Makerere University during which a clinic staff member was arrested for “recruiting homosexuals,” took place in April), and 3) over concerns that the Ugandan health authorities do not “share [the US’s] evidence-based approach to medicine and science”, for which reason a public health institute that the US had been planning in Uganda will now be set up in a different African country. 

The statement ends with the words: “to end discrimination against LGBT people [is] a struggle central to the US’s commitment to promoting human rights.” In response, Kampala said that “Uganda is a sovereign country and can never bow to anybody or be blackmailed by anybody on a decision it took in its interests.”

The move by the US is oddly timed – unlike the steps it took in March, immediately after President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, nothing has happened lately to which a response would have been expected, and there has been no media coverage of Ugandan discrimination lately. 

It is likely that American health authorities that were going to be involved in future projects in Uganda preferred not to work there and asked for official endorsement of the decision, while the suspension of the military exercise comes on the same day that the US announced that it was sending “military advisers” to Iraq, and at a time when the US is focussing more attention on the Middle East.

The impact of the steps taken will be small, and it is unlikely to have any political or economic consequences apart from additional depreciatory pressure on the shilling exchange rate.