U.S. can no longer ignore Egypt’s grim human rights record, report

On Sept. 18, 2019, Egypt’s Interior Ministry issued a six-line statement announcing that security forces had killed nine elements of the Brotherhood in two “hideouts” in and near Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist groups, has been outlawed since the 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who belonged. However, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has encouraged security forces to impose “swift justice” against the Brotherhood and smaller armed Islamic groups that have allegedly attacked police and military officers. Mr. Sisi told the security forces, “Your hands are not tied,” according to The Washington Post.

The only person identified among the dead in the 2019 police raid was Mahmoud Gharib, 24, who was described as leader of a smaller armed Islamist group. But a strange thing about Mr. Gharib is that he was already believed to be in police custody.

According to Human Rights Watch, he was arrested March 17 at a cafe in Alexandria, Egypt. A friend witnessed the arrest by plainclothes security officers, and his family received a smuggled letter confirming he was in a detention center. How could a terrorist be in a “hideout” when he was already in custody?

The question underscores the findings of a disturbing new report by Human Rights Watch that exposes yet another dimension of Egypt’s increasingly abusive police state: a pattern of suspicious killings by security forces.

The deaths have been presented by the regime as “shootouts” with “terrorists” but, the report strongly suggests, they are executions carried out without trial or rule of law.

The report asserts that, under the pretext of combating terrorism, Egypt’s government has given security forces “free rein to suppress all opposition, including peaceful dissent, with near-absolute impunity for grave abuses. The result has been one of the worst prolonged human rights crises in the country’s recent history.”

Previous reporting by human rights groups and journalists has documented killing of peaceful protesters, forced disappearances and torture by Egyptian security forces. The new report adds a spree of extrajudicial killings to this sordid record. Between January 2015 and December 2020, Human Rights Watch found 755 alleged “militants” or “terrorists” were killed in 143 incidents that the government described as shootouts or gun battles. The group took a closer look at nine incidents involving 75 deaths, in particular at 14 cases where the victims’ friends and family members could be interviewed.

“In all 14 cases family members said their killed relatives had been arrested and were in the custody of security agencies before the incidents in which they were reportedly killed,” the report says.

President Biden has vowed to make human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected shortly to decide whether to withhold on human rights grounds $300 million of the $1.3 billion in military aid annually given to Egypt.

In the past, the full sum was given despite Egypt’s miserable record on human rights, but the time has come for a change. The United States can no longer look away from Egypt’s grim toll.