Holder publicly hoped that those security officials responsible for beating a man, Khaled Said, to death in full public view last month “would be held accountable.” The killing has galvanized the nation, culminating in massive protests and widespread demands for change in the culture of brutality and impunity that permeates Egypt’s police force. The outpouring has already had an effect, since the authorities have been forced to arrest and put on trial the cops allegedly responsible.
The Obama folks have vacillated on asking one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid to reform. When President Obama made his historic speech in Cairo last year, he uttered nary a word about the Egyptian government. And when Hosni Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal, visited officialdom in Washington a year ago, he divulged to a gathering that it was the first time “when I wasn’t deluged with questions about the human rights situation in Egypt.” That’s why Holder's statement is refreshing.
Egypt has some brave dissidents who deserve all the support they can get. When I visited the country back in 2002 with other journalists, a bunch of human rights activists who met us laughed in response when we asked them if they feared arrest. Over the past few years, there’s been a courageous movement called Kefaya (Enough!) that has persisted in the face of intense repression by the government, including sexual assault.
And now the country’s reformers are coalescing around the possible presidential candidacy of former IAEA head and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. The government has already begun its campaign of harassment by forbidding ElBaradei from conducting any “political work” on campuses, a way of ensuring that he is not able to reach out to the urban educated youth, a critical constituency.
That’s where the Obama Administration comes in. The elections are scheduled to be held next year, and ElBaradei has said he will take part only if the playing field is truly level. During his Egypt visit, Holder called for the elections to be conducted “in a free and open way.” In recent remarks, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey has talked about “support to democracy and human rights in Egypt through support to Egyptian civil society.”
But the United States needs to move beyond words. It has to use the $1.6 billion annual allowance it doles out to Egypt to press for real electoral and administrative reform.
Egypt is in the grip of a geriatric dictator who plans to eventually yield in true monarchical fashion only to his son. If the Obama Administration helps in even a small way to level the electoral field, it will have struck a major blow for democracy and human rights.