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Rights groups decry 'mixed message' in US-Egypt chopper deal

US resumption of military aid to Egypt comes at the same time Washington is criticising the country for human rights violations
A group of students stage anti-coup protest in Cairo on 23 April 2014 (AA)

By Jasmin Ramsey

WASHINGTON - Last October, the Barack Obama administration suspended the delivery of attack helicopters to Egypt’s interim government following the July 2 military ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

“Delivery of these systems could resume pending Egypt’s progress toward an inclusive democratically-elected civilian government,” said Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, during testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee October 29.

So the announcement late Tuesday by the Pentagon that 10 apache helicopters will now be delivered despite agreement by major rights groups that the Egyptian government has, if anything, increased its repression in the intervening six months is being met with concern.

“It’s abundantly clear that Egypt is not taking steps toward a democratic transition,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s a very confused statement.”

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Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart that “we are not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition.” At the same time he confirmed the delivery of the Apache helicopters in support of Egypt’s counterterrorism operations in the Sinai, according to a readout of their phone call Tuesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry will also be certifying to Congress that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States - including by countering transnational threats such as terrorism and weapons proliferation - and that Egypt is upholding its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty”, according to a separate statement released Tuesday.

“The US administration keeps trying to split the difference, sending the message that they want to keep up security cooperation with the Egyptian government but at the same time that they don’t approve of the coup and the massive human rights abuses that have followed,” Michelle Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist, told IPS.

“I think these helicopters are intended to show support for the fight against terrorism in the Sinai and not for General [Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi’s presidential campaign, but that’s not an easy distinction to make,” said Dunne, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 “The other problem with delivering the Apaches is that there is a strong risk that they will be used in carrying out serious human-rights abuses - basically collective punishment of entire communities - in the Sinai,” she said.

“This would be a direct violation of President Obama’s January 2014 directive against providing conventional weapons in situations where they are likely to be used to commit human rights violations or to associate the United States with such violations,” added Dunne.

As noted by Dunne, rights groups worry that any distinctions the Obama administration may be trying to make between addressing legitimate Egyptian security concerns and disapproving of its human rights record will be lost as a result of the delivery of the Apache helicopters.

“Our concern is that these fine distinctions will be lost on most people in Egypt and will be distorted by the Egyptian government, that will claim that this indicates US support,” Neil Hicks, the international policy advisor at Human Rights First, told IPS.

Almost one month ago, the Obama administration strongly denounced an Egyptian court’s decision to sentence 529 people to death for the killing of one police officer during protests of the coup against Morsi last July.

“The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt’s commitment to international law and inclusivity,” Kerry said on March 26 in reaction to the mass death sentences.

The Obama administration has strongly condemned the violent crackdown by the Egyptian military against protesterrs following the ouster of Morsi, which many Egyptians supported at the time.

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, a Carnegie report authored by Dunne and Scott Williamson in March found that the current level of repression in Egypt actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

A total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between July 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have also been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders - the vast majority associated with the Muslim Brotherhood - have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

According to Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the Obama administration’s decision to send the Apaches doesn’t contradict the law, “but sends the signal that concern for democratic progress is not an equal priority for this administration.

“Unfortunately, it’s not unexpected. It’s been clear that many in the administration have wanted to move forward with the resumption of military aid to Egypt,” McInerney told IPS.

Al-Sisi, who experts here say has exercised de facto power since the coup, is expected to be a shoo-in in Egypt’s presidential election late next month. He has returned many senior officials of the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, as well as many of his family’s business cronies, to positions they lost after Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of popular pressure and some urging by the US and other Western governments in February 2011.

Citing increasing terrorist activity which has reportedly taken the lives of more than 430 police officers and soldiers since the coup, he urged the Obama administration Wednesday to re-instate all US military and security all US military assistance to Egypt. Washington has provided on average of about 1.3 billion dollars a year - almost all of it in military aid - in bilateral assistance to Cairo.

Next to Israel, Egypt has been the biggest beneficiary of US bilateral assistance since the Camp David peace treaty was signed by the two nations in 1979. Besides helping to sustain the treaty, the aid has also ensured that US warships are given priority access to the Suez Canal and US warplanes can overfly Egyptian airspace.

The aid suspension last October infuriated the Egyptian military’s closest allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh has promised to compensate for any shortfall in US military aid by buying weapons systems other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

Saudi complaints that Washington has not provided sufficient support to Al-Sisi and the Egyptian military since the coup reportedly figured importantly in recent exchanges between Washington and Riyadh, including a visit by Obama himself with King Abdullah last month.

Jim Lobe contributed to this article.

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