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Open Letter to President Obama

[Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and President Barack Obama. Image originally posted to Flickr by [Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and President Barack Obama. Image originally posted to Flickr by "U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos."]

To President Barack Obama:

Three years ago, I had the honor of meeting you in the White House as part of a delegation of some fifty human rights defenders from around the world. I was one of three rights defenders who were asked to speak during the forty minutes out of the ninety-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 criticize the president in his presence. I responded that the act required no courage at all in light of what happens when we try to criticize 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.

In fact, while people often write their last wills in their 60s or 70s, Egyptian youth in their 20s — who would normally be planning their weddings — have been found carrying freshly penned wills while participating in protests. But these wills are not written to pass on material possessions to their relatives, as most of them own nothing of value and can only offer their lives and their aspirations to live a life of dignity in their own country. Rather, these wills dictate the details of their funerals: Which square will the procession proceed from? Which streets will it pass through? What chants should be heard?

Twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Hussein Al-Qarni, administrator of the “Brotherhood Are Liars” Facebook page, will not be the last of these youth to die. He was shot in the neck and chest on 1 February in a side street near the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. Since December, the palace environs have witnessed the torture of demonstrators by members of the president’s party, the dragging and beating of protesters by security forces in scenes broadcast around the world, and assassinations. Two prominent cases are those of opposition journalist Mohamed Al-Husseini Abu Deif, who was shot in the head 12 December in front of the palace, and that of Amr Saad, nineteen, who was also shot in the head in front of the palace in the beginning of February. This violence has also been seen in Tahrir Square. On 20 November, seventeen-year-old Gaber “Jika” Salah, the administrator of the Together Against the Muslim Brothers Facebook page, was shot in the head with a shotgun. On 31 December, twenty-year-old Mohannad Samir, a member of the 6 April Movement, was shot in the head with a shotgun and entered a coma for several days before it finally became clear that he would survive.

Rape, which is recognized internationally as a weapon of war, is now used in Egypt as a political weapon to deter opponents from gathering in Tahrir Square. According to multiple testimonies in recent weeks, the assaults differ radically from the forms of sexual harassment prevalent in Egypt in previous years. According to victims and video footage, female protesters are separated from the demonstrations, taken to other locations, and raped, in what appear to be organized, previously planned attacks. The faces of the assailants show no signs of emotion or sexual excitement. The objective appears to be to break the political will of the victims through profound degradation, whether they are raped, sexually mauled, or stripped entirely of their clothes — if they manage to escape the mob. In more than one case, a knife was used to penetrate the victims’ vaginas, and multiple women underwent hysterectomies after being assaulted. In this context, we can understand the attempted rape of a seventy-year-old woman known for her political affiliation as well as the sexual assault of a number of men.

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 democratization” have covered over and indeed legitimized 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 thirty-five 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. This will no doubt spare your administration much time and effort, but more importantly, it may spare more bloodshed in Egypt, as the current regime will no longer enjoy the political cover that the US administration now offers them. Certainly, Egypt has seen enough bloodshed over the last two years, and Egyptians are tired of being punished for their uprising.

When in December I met Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for human rights and that rare person in your administration who is motivated by human rights concerns, I asked that he pass on this modest request to administration spokespeople: that as long as they cannot speak the truth about what is happening in Egypt, they keep silent.

Mr. President, only a few days ago Egyptians celebrated the second anniversary of their revolution. Meanwhile, the regime commemorated the occasion differently: by re-enacting the scenes of violence and brutality seen during the eighteen days of the 2011 uprising, adding the new phenomenon of gang rapes. In one week, more than sixty people died in several governorates, and there were dozens of reported gang rapes and assaults. Hundreds of people were arrested and an unknown number abducted. One of them — twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Al-Guindi — reappeared a few days later in a hospital, brutally tortured, and soon died.

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, at least until we can bury our dead, comfort their grieving families, treat the victims of rape and torture, find the disappeared, and read the wills of a new generation of young people who plan not for their weddings but for their funerals.

[This article originally appeared in Ahram Weekly.]

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