CAIRO – Nearly three years into a heavy crackdown overseen by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, allegations of human rights abuses including killings, torture and secret detentions are starting to bring an international backlash from the Egyptian leader's allies.
In the past month, Egypt was rebuked over its human rights record by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union's foreign affairs arm, the European Parliament, the U.N. Council for Human Rights as well as several Western European nations, including key trade partner and EU heavyweight Germany.
The case of an Italian student kidnapped and tortured to death in Cairo has poisoned Egypt's long close ties with Italy, amid suspicions that it was carried out by members of the security agencies. Egypt denies police were involved and last week announced that a criminal gang was behind the killing of Giulio Regeni — a claim that was derided in Italy.
Also raising alarm was Egypt's reopening earlier this month of a criminal investigation into a number of non-governmental organizations — including rights groups — on suspicion of illegally taking foreign funds and aiming to "harm national security." The two cases came under heavy criticism at a session of the U.N. Human Rights council last week, along with reports of torture and forced disappearances.
"This looks like a clampdown on sections of Egyptian civil society and it must stop," the U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Raad Al-Hassan said of the NGO case. Kerry raised concern over "deterioration" in Egypt's rights situation and "a wider backdrop of arrests and intimidation of political opposition, journalists, civil society activists and cultural figures."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, replied that Cairo rejects international "tutelage" on human rights. He said Egypt is "keen to implement and put into action the constitution, which stipulates respect for and commitment to human rights." Shoukry and Kerry met Wednesday in Washington on the sidelines of a nuclear security conference in talks that focused on the conflicts on Syria and Yemen — though the State Department said Kerry underlined the need for Egypt to allow rights NGOs to operate freely.
Egypt often counters that it is fighting against Islamic militancy in the form of an insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers the past three years. Since coming to office in 2014, el-Sissi has presented himself as at the forefront of the battle against Islamic militants, calling for reforms to encourage moderate Islam. He has become a close ally of European state in fighting the Islamic State group, particularly in Libya.
So far there's no sign that Egypt's Western allies will take any action beyond criticism. But some leading commentators in Egypt warn that the worsening rights reputation is damaging to a country that receives considerable international development aid and is struggling to repair a tourism sector vital to its economy.
"In the final analysis, we need the world more than the world needs us," wrote Abdel-Monem Said, a respected analyst who for years led Egypt's leading state-owned think tank, the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He said the government can't keep shrugging off criticism.
"Improving our reputation is not only the smart thing to do, but it is also possible."
Veteran rights campaigner Hesham Qassim warned in a column in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that governments and development agencies might eventually scale down their dealings with Egypt, "which will gradually become ... a pariah state."
Government supporters in the media have constantly depicted the U.S. and Europeans as trying to restore the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood or undermine Egypt. After an Egyptian man hijacked an EgyptAir flight to Cyprus this week, two prominent TV personalities argued that the hijacking was a plot — presumably by foreign powers — to pressure authorities to drop the NGO case.
Since he led the military's July 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sissi has overseen the jailing of thousands of Islamists. Hundreds more were killed in clashes with police, mostly in 2013 and 2014. The crackdown has also targeted secular, pro-democracy activists.
Most of Egypt's Western backers were initially sharply critical of el-Sissi for his ouster of Morsi, the country's first freely elected leader. The United States even suspended part of the more than $1 billion in annual aid it gives Egypt, almost all of which goes to the military.
But the Egyptian leader heavily invested time, effort and travel to persuade allies that Morsi's removal was the wish of the millions who joined protests against his divisive rule and the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. and Europe largely turned to el-Sissi's side eventually, in part due to Egypt's role in the fight against militant groups.
Now with criticism on the rise again, Abdullah el-Sennawy, a prominent columnist close to el-Sissi's government, said international punitive actions are unlikely but the possibility "cannot be dismissed altogether." He wrote in a column in the Al-Shorouq newspaper that rights concerns must be addressed.
"The most important challenge facing a nation in crisis longing for some hope in the future is to improve its human rights record, restore public freedoms and declare a break with the past."