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Open letter to Obama: You’re not Backing Democracy and Human Rights

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Wed, Feb 6, 2013 | Al-Ahram Weekly

Open letter by Bahieddin Hassan asking U.S. President Barack Obama to stop commenting on developments in Egypt.

To President Barack Obama:

Image taken during the dialog in February 2010 between U.S. President Barack Obama and a delegation of human rights defenders from around the world, including the essayist bahieddin Hassan in the seat opposite for Obama. (Image source: CIHRS website / www.cihrs.org)

 

Three years ago, I had the honour of meeting you in the White House as part of a delegation of some 50 human rights defenders from around the world. I was one of three rights defenders who were asked to speak during the 40 minutes out of the 90-minute meeting during which you and your advisors were present.

When it was my turn to address those gathered, I urged you to consider the gulf between the content of your speech to the Arab and Islamic worlds in Cairo in June 2009 and the reality of American policy in February 2010, noting that they seemed separated by much more than simply a few months. In Cairo, you promised to stand by peoples of the region and engage with them, but eight months later your administration’s policy was to turn its back on the people and work instead with local regimes. I discussed three examples of this: Palestine, Yemen and Egypt.

Jokingly, you noted that despite being a guest in the White House, I was audacious enough to criticise the president in his presence. I responded that the act required no courage at all in light of what happens when we try to criticise Arab presidents back home, at which the hall erupted in laughter.

After the Egyptian revolution, I met your commendable human rights advisor Samantha Power and told her it was time for a second Cairo speech. At the time, hopes were high that Egyptians would now be able to work to dramatically improve the human rights situation in the country, and that US policy would support Egyptians in achieving these aspirations.

Now, two years later, neither changes to the human rights situation nor to US policy have fulfilled our hopes. Egyptian young people continue to live in frustration due to the deteriorating economic situation and the repeated failure of political processes to represent their demands, despite the sacrifices that they have made for the sake of the revolution and transition to democracy. Young people taking to the streets to express this frustration continue to be met with violence.

[...]

Mr President, when I spoke with you in 2010, I asked why the US administration condemns repressive practices in Iran while remaining silent when Arab regimes engage in the same violations. Over recent months, statements by your administration have similarly failed to address violations and have even blamed protesters and victims for violence committed in the context of demonstrations. Indeed, the stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.

Statements that “Egypt is witnessing a genuine and broad-based process of democratisation” have covered over and indeed legitimised the undemocratic processes by which the Constituent Assembly passed the new constitution, an issue which has in turn led to greatly heightened instability in the country. Calls for “the opposition [to] remain non-violent” and for “the government and security forces [to] exercise self-restraint in the face of protester violence” have allowed the police and the current Egyptian administration to shirk their responsibilities to secure demonstrations and to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people, and have allowed them to place the blame for violence and instability on protesters themselves. Urging “the opposition [to] engage in a national dialogue without preconditions” undermines the ability of the opposition to play a real role in the decision-making processes of the country, as these “dialogues” seldom result in anything more concrete than a photo-op with the president.

Is it a coincidence that the statements issued by your administration reflect the same political rhetoric used by the new authoritarian regime in Egypt? But when these statements come from the world’s superpower — the one most able to have a positive or negative impact on policies in Egypt and the region, not to mention the biggest donor and material supporter of the Egyptian regime for the past 35 years — they become lethal ammunition, offering political protection to perpetrators of murder, torture, brutality and rape.

[...]

I do not write you today to ask you to condemn the repressive policies of the current regime, or to ask you to urge President Mohamed Morsi to “cease” using excessive force and violence against Egyptians, even as your administration was so eager to achieve a ceasefire with Hamas to stop hostilities in Gaza. I write you not to ask for troops to protect political protesters in Egypt, or to suspend, freeze, or reduce military or economic aid to my country, or even to impose conditions on that aid. My request is quite modest: that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt.

[...]

Mr President, I fear that the gulf I spoke to you about three years ago is fast filling up with blood. In this context, further American statements supporting the current Egyptian regime will only lead to more Egyptians being beaten, raped, tortured, and killed. Please, ask officials with your administration to stop talking about Egypt for a while…

Click here to read the full text of Hassan’s open letter in English (Al-Ahram Weekly website) or click here to read the full text in Arabic (CIHRS website).

Bahieddin Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.



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