By Dalia Ziada
On the side of United Nations General Assembly, in September, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi of Egypt held separate meetings with US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The meetings ignited a huge controversy in both American and Egyptian media. Most commentaries focused on comparing the foreign policies of the two presidential candidates, based on how they handled the Egyptian President. One commentary by the Editorial Board of the Washington Post stood out.
Rather than discussing the foreign policy perspectives of US Presidential candidates, Washington Post Editorial Board seized the opportunity to attack the Egyptian President, as usual. This one article went too far, though. The editorial described President El Sisi as the “dictator” who came to power through a “military coup” and who is now “pocketing” 1.3 billion dollars from the US.
First of all, it is totally unfair to name El Sisi a dictator. President El Sisi came to power through free and fair elections with 97% of votes. He has been in power for two years; that is hardly the half of his first term. He is still in power with the endorsement of the Egyptian people, who did not fear to topple the autocratic regime of Mubarak and the theocratic regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, within a time frame of only three years. El Sisi is using his presidential powers under the rule of law guaranteed by a valid constitution. His presidential powers do not conflict with the independent judicial system or the parliament, which already has extra-presidential powers. When he was a military leader, El Sisi sided with Egyptians in overthrowing two dictators. Thus, he cannot be dreaming about being a dictator himself.
Second, According to Camp David Peace Accords, Egypt should receive annual 1.3 billion dollars in military aid and a double of that amount goes to Israel. The US funds are not given to the presidents of Egypt and Israel to put in their pockets, as the Editorial Board claims! It is given to the military institutions in both countries to improve their warfare and push forward economic welfare. Neither the President of Egypt, nor the President of Israel, could dare to “pocket” the US funds or even spend on anything other than their pre-identified purpose.
Third, I wish the Washington Post had invested the precious space of the editorial in highlighting the most urgent message conveyed by Mrs. Clinton to President El Sisi; which is for the Egyptian government to enhance human rights and encourage the work of civil society organizations. Rather than spending 500 words on attacking El Sisi, the Editorial Board should have explored workable recommendations to turn Mrs. Clinton’s message into action. They should have looked beyond the cliché phrase in most western media of “pressuring Egypt on human rights” to suggest practical solutions on “helping” Egypt advance human rights agenda in conformity with Egypt’s strategy and priority needs.
Enough with pressures for God sake! Egypt has been weighed down by endless economic and political pressures since 2011 revolution. Rather than shouldering us with more pressures, the next US president should help us get rid of those pressures and thus set the right atmosphere for the hard-won human rights and civil freedoms to flourish.
The strategy adopted by President El Sisi to improve the status of political and civil rights in Egypt is to set a solid basis of economic and social rights, first. In a recovering country with high rates of poverty and illiteracy, the top priorities are to provide quality food and secure shelter. The main slogan in the 2011 revolution was “bread, freedom, social Justice.” Bread was put first, because this is what people needs first. Human rights and civil freedoms are not something to be given by a government. Those rights were earned by the Egyptian people and no one can take it away from them. Therefore the strategy of El Sisi is to create the socio-economic context where people can really enjoy their constitutional political and civil rights.
President El Sisi’s approach of giving the priority to social and economic rights might not be the perfect solution from the point of view of most Americans. But, so far, it is working like charm in Egypt. The question, then, is: could the new president of the US consider “helping” Egypt follow through its own strategy towards liberal democratization, rather than “pressuring” Egypt to adopt a ready-made American model? Let’s hope for the positive answer.