Issue No.1134, 7 February, 2013      06-02-2013 03:23AM ET

Open letter to President Obama

There is a widening chasm between you and Egyptians, Bahieddin Hassan tells the US president

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To President Barack Obama:

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.

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, 19, 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, 17-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, 20-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 recognised 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 organised, 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 70-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 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. 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 18 days of the 2011 uprising, adding the new phenomenon of gang rapes. In one week, more than 60 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 — 23-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.


The writer is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

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Add Comment



idont thinkso wrote:

14-02-2013 03:11am

Sadly, it seems, Americans (and Europeans) still don't get it
Bill Fisher wrote that there is a conflict between what the author of the letter asks and what the rebels in Bahrain ask. This is false. One needs only to draw a line between the Bahraini rebels and the current Egyptian regime, and bear in mind that said regime was a rebel group just a few years ago. Nay, the assistance of the US is too often given to underdogs without realizing that said underdog is usually no better than the current tyrant (be it a single person or a group), and quite often, much much worse.

idont thinkso wrote:

14-02-2013 03:09am

Sadly, it seems, Americans (and Europeans) still don't get it
Bill Fisher wrote that there is a conflict between what the author of the letter asks and what the rebels in Bahrain ask. This is false. One needs only to draw a line between the Bahraini rebels and the current Egyptian regime, and bear in mind that said regime was a rebel group just a few years ago. Nay, the assistance of the US is too often given to underdogs without realizing that said underdog is usually no better than the current tyrant (be it a single person or a group), and quite often, much much worse.

Bill Fisher wrote:

10-02-2013 02:46am

It is ironic that in Egypt, the head of a leading newspaper publishes a letter to President Obama, urging the US to stop speaking of Egypt if the US government can't say anything accurate; while just up the road in Bahrain, the Bahraini rebels are urging Mr. Obama to speak out more forcefully in favor of dialogue and against the repression and death dealt to defenders of freedom for the past 18 months.

Sam Enslow wrote:

10-02-2013 08:15am

Egypt's Problems Are Egypt's.
Yet another article on how the problems of Egypt are caused by someone else, an article that forgets that during the revolution the US was said to be supporting Mubarak while at the same time people were saying the US was passing out $100 bills in Tahrir and the revolution was being catered by KFC. It also neglects any behind the scenes actions by the US and the fact that if Obama were to say bad things about Morsi the Egyptian would run to defend him because the US is messing in Egypt's internal affairs.Egypt faces many problems that were created by Egyptians and no one else. When Egypt is willing to identify its problems openly and accept responsibility for them, it can begin to solve them. This will take work, not tea and talk. Mistakes will be made, but they can be corrected if admitted. Egypt should be the richest country in the Middle East. That it is not is due to the actions or inactions of Egyptians.

Ron Pelton wrote:

10-02-2013 12:17am

US Citizen
Yes, my President, is it too much to ask your silence? If you cannot be helpful, just be quiet! RSP

Geppetto wrote:

09-02-2013 10:33am

universal frustration
What can be said here by an American from a country that elected Obama to serve another four years as "the leader of the free world." I share this man's frustration, sympathize with his plight and that of the people he is speaking for. I'm embarrassed but not surprised. It's impossible to say what Obama's plans are for the U.S. much less what his foreign policy is but the evidence after 4 plus years is not encouraging. It is no comfort that he did not get my vote.

Jim O'Brien wrote:

09-02-2013 06:53am

No matter what the west does we will be blamed....
Most of us in the free west are fed up with doing anything for anybody. We are always blamed for everything.... we are finished supporting people who turn around and blame us for everything. You are responsible for your own lives - stop blaming us and stop looking to us to figure out your self imposed situation. You have called wolf far to long!

Robley E. George wrote:

09-02-2013 03:12am

Open Letter to Bahieddin Hassan & Introduction to Socioeconomic Democracy
Dear Bahieddin,Your respectful, powerful and thoughtful open letter to "President Obama" is globally appreciated. I share your hope that it will be read (not only by the millions, but by that "Harvard Graduate"), and seriously considered.I further respectfully offer the following as a partial solution to your, and humanity's, thirst for the resolution of this stupid and utterly unnecessary psycho-politico-socio-economic problem:Socioeconomic Democracy is a theoretically consistent and practically implementable socioeconomic system wherein there exist both some form and amount of locally appropriate Universally Guaranteed Personal Income and some form and amount of locally appropriate Maximum Allowable Personal Wealth, with both the lower bound on personal material poverty and the upper bound on personal material wealth set and adjusted democratically by all participants of a democratic society. This is trivially accomplished with elementary Public Choice Theory.