Fireworks light the sky as opponents of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi celebrate his ouster in Tahrir Square in Cairo, July, 2013
Over three decades, the Carter Center in Atlanta, led by former President Jimmy Carter, has established itself as a respected advocate for human rights and democracy. It has sent observers to 97 elections in 38 countries, worked to persuade governments to respect freedoms and human rights, and supported citizens who defend those principles. But it has thrown in the towel on Egypt.
In a statement last week, the center announced that it would close its Cairo office after nearly three years and would not send experts to monitor parliamentary elections later this year. “The current environment in Egypt is not conducive to genuine democratic elections and civic participation,” Mr. Carter said as part of the statement, which warned that political campaigning in an already polarized situation “could be extremely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for critics of the regime.”
The center’s withering judgment is a damning critique of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former general who overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013. It also sends two powerful messages to the Obama administration.
One is that playing down Mr. Sisi’s repressive tactics is bound to backfire and drive aggrieved Egyptians to violence and extremism, destabilizing both Egypt and the region.
The other is that absent a radical shift in Egypt’s approach, there is no way Secretary of State John Kerry can credibly certify to Congress anytime soon that the country is on a democratic path. That certification is a condition of Egypt’s receiving $650 million worth of American tanks and fighter planes. It should be withheld until Mr. Sisi shows he is serious about putting in place “a state that respects the rights and freedoms,” which he disingenuously described in a United Nations speech in September.
Washington is obviously concerned about upsetting an important Arab ally that honors its peace treaty with Israel and permits expedited passage through the vital Suez Canal. But at some point the United States must draw a line. It would also be helpful if Israel, which prides itself on its democracy and has productive ties with Mr. Sisi, encouraged him to abandon the authoritarian course he has followed ever since he got himself elected president in a rigged vote in 2014. Mr. Sisi has cracked down on dissidents, opposition groups and journalists, including three respected professionals working for Al Jazeera. The Carter Center expressed alarm about the mass arrests of Brotherhood leaders and supporters, whom Egypt has unfairly branded as terrorists. More than 16,000 people are in jail for political reasons; more than 1,000 were killed during protests.
A so-called protest law passed in 2013 sharply limits freedoms of expression and assembly. Another law dating from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011, is aimed at regulating nongovernmental civic groups as well as international organizations like the Carter Center. The center noted that Mr. Sisi’s government was tightening enforcement of that law while proposing a new law that would be even more restrictive. Mr. Sisi has also amended the penal code so that anyone charged with receiving money or arms from a foreign country or organization could face a life sentence.
In 2013, an Egyptian court found more than three dozen employees of foreign nonprofit groups, including 16 Americans, guilty of receiving illegal funds from abroad and operating unlicensed organizations. Most of those charged left the country and did not serve prison time, but the threat of further arrests has increased.
Nongovernmental interest groups of all kinds, including the Carter Center, obviously have cause for alarm. But so do all Egyptians who do not toe Mr. Sisi’s authoritarian line, and that cannot possibly instill confidence in the foreign investors and tourists who are vital to rebuilding Egypt’s troubled economy. America must do what it can to persuade Mr. Sisi to abandon this dangerous course.
Egypt is an oasis of calm in the Middle East. Trust the New York Times to take the wrong side. Democracy and the tribal societies of the Arab Middle East do not mix, especially when you add in political Islam.