What Now for Human Rights in Egypt?

Now that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president of Egypt, many are looking to the military to see what its next move will be. The military assumed direct power on February 11th, and the question now is whether or not the military will uphold and defend human rights or if it will continue to cover up human rights violations committed by those in a position of power.

The Mubarak regime has a long history of detaining and torturing the political opposition and those suspected of being part of the opposition. Torture became an acceptable practice under the state of emergency which was re-instated in 1981 when Mubarak took power after Sadat’s assassination.

Recent reports of missing and tortured persons leave many speculating what the future of Egypt will look like. Although exact numbers of those detained since the protests began on January 25th cannot be confirmed, Egyptian human rights activists claim that many of the protesters who were arrested still remain in custody. Amnesty International estimates that over a thousand protesters were detained in recent weeks.

Of those released, some claim that they were held in military-run prisons and in some cases, tortured. These accounts of abuses by the military leave Egyptian citizens questioning whether the state of human rights will be any different than when Mubarak was in power. Human rights groups and activists are now calling for the end to secret detention and demanding that the Higher Council of Armed Forces provide the names of and release protesters imprisoned over the last several weeks.

As far as Western governments are concerned, they need to choose democracy in the Middle East over autocratic stability. It will not be difficult for the international community to disclaim earlier statements made about fostering entirely peaceful and only gradual change in the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. The vehemence and success of the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere has made it easier for civilians and journalists to disregard the confounded statements made by Western leaders.

Most notably, Vice President Joe Biden referred to Mubarak as an ally and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the Egyptian government was stable. They were then quick to withdraw support once it became evident that Mubarak’s rule was coming to an end. And the French foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, offered the support of France’s security forces to Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, just days before he fled the country.

Even after Mubarak stepped down from power, Western countries continued to demonstrate through their actions what they value most - business and political interests. For example, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Egypt recently, accompanied by business executives from various industries. According to The Economist, “[T]he prime minister admitted to being ‘particularly keen’ on being among the first foreign leaders to visit Egypt after the departure of Mr. Mubarak.”

The United States in particular should use its military diplomacy, as it did during the uprisings, to promote human rights and a just approach to the civil unrest which has yet to stand still. Military-to-military relationships have a history of succeeding to foster social cohesion when open political diplomacy fails.

A regime can only be toppled successfully from the bottom up, but the power to sustain basic rights needs to come from the top. Since world leaders are not making human rights a priority on their visits to Egypt, they need to put pressure on the military. However, support from world leaders alone is not enough to help Egypt transition into a democratic state. The military needs to prove that its leadership will be different than that of Mubarak by creating a transparent government and putting an end to secret detention.

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