Press Roundtable at U.S. Embassy in Cairo

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Cairo, Egypt
October 9, 2010

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Good morning and thank you all for being here. I want to start, if I may, with a few introductory comments. This is my second visit here this year. It won’t be the last and it is a pleasure to be back. This is part of a broader strategic dialogue between the United States and Egypt. Our countries have a strong partnership, and we talk about and work on a range of issues together; strategic issues. The government of Egypt has been an important partner in the ME peace process, and we have a range of interests and shared objectives in terms of development and economics.

The issues that are part of my portfolio in Human Rights and Democracy are part of that dialogue and discussion, and a routine part of what we discuss. The engagement here is part of a broader principal of engagement of the Obama Administration, and a commitment to be involved and discuss with a range of countries strategic, economic, political, and human rights issues, all simultaneously. That principle of engagement, which the President just re-articulated in his speech to the UN General Assembly, includes a greater commitment to working not only on a bilateral basis, but also through the UN. Our decision last year to join the UN Human Rights Council is part of that. We worked last fall with Egypt on a resolution at the HR Council on Freedom of Expression, and we continue to be very involved there as part of our engagement in the world.

The second broad principle for this administration is that there is a universal set of human rights standards to which every government is held accountable, including our own. President Obama on his second day in office, outlined part of our commitment to doing that, like making a commitment to close Guantanamo, to end abusive interrogation practices, and to review security detention policies. All of those things are still underway, and some of them are quite challenging.

We’ve also agreed that this November, we will appear with the UN human rights council with our universal periodic review on the US. I take note of the fact and we are greatly encouraged by the Egyptian government’s participation last year in the universal periodic review. It’s part of the frame work in which we and other governments discuss these issues.

A third broad principle-- and it’s the last and I’ll stop-- is that we believe here and elsewhere that change occurs from within a society. It’s impossible to impose it from outside. We believe Secretary Clinton articulated this last December in a speech at Georgetown University and more recently in a speech in Poland in Krakow on Civil Society. We believe that democracy-- sustainable democracy-- is a process that lasts 365 days a year. It includes freedom of the press. It includes a vital vibrant civil society that’s allowed to operate freely. It includes the right of workers to organize themselves. It includes the empowerment of women. It includes the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. So, in our discussions with the government of Egypt and every government, these are the points we stress. It’s up to every society to create and strengthen and live its own democracy, but these are the elements we try to work with governments and civil society to promote.

I’ll just say finally that we have been here for several days, and we met with representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the national council on human rights, as well as a range of non-governmental actors, civil society groups, human rights groups, journalists, religious leaders, etc. Our discussions dealt with five broad areas, and I’m glad to take questions on those or anything else. One is the state of emergency, and our continued desire that the state of emergency be lifted or allowed to expire, and replaced by a narrower law on counter terrorism that respects civil liberties and due process.

Secondly, that there be accountability. There are in every society challenges that face police officials of excessive use of force and torture, and we have discussed among other things the Khaleed Sayid case and the prosecution of that case, which we welcome. It is important to us that there is accountability for excessive use of force.

The third is that there be a democratic environment and a space for civil discourse and freedom of association. We are eager that there be less government involvement or interference in the day to day operations by non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations. We are eager that there be an openness to foreign funding to support those organizations. We are eager that there be no changes in laws of governing NGO’s that would in any way further restrict the environment and the climate. We are also eager that there be a continuation in the openness in press and press freedom, which is evidenced here today, and we want to be sure that particularly now before parliamentary elections and the presidential election next year, that the press and multiple voices and views be allowed to be expressed.

The fourth area for us is the electoral process and again, these elections are for Egypt, by Egyptians its not our position to take sides or to offer any suggestions on how the outcome should be decided, but what we are concerned about is that the elections be free and fair and that there be a right to participate a free right to access to polling places, that observers would be allowed to monitor those elections. We have urged and continue to urge that there be both domestic observers as well as international observers, and we are also eager that there be an open process that allows voters to register, that allows political parties to register, and that allows maximum participation in the electoral process.

Fifth and finally, we are continuing to follow very closely the challenges posed by sectarian tensions in this society, between Christians and Muslims. When I was here in January it was right after the Naga Hamadi killings, which I spoke about publicly. We have reiterated our concerns in meetings here. Again, we are mindful and appreciative to the government that there is a prosecution going on in that case, but we are very aware that the government needs do everything within its power to limit and to reduce the tensions along religious lines. Let me stop with that and open up to questions.

QUESTION: First I would like to ask about what you mentioned about international domestic observation for the elections, but it seems the Egyptian government doesn’t want this, they refuse this claim, so why do you think are the reason behind this refusal. Is it fair or not? And if I can ask a second point about this, it is felt here that the American administration has lifted a little bit from demanding of democracy the ME and especially in Egypt, how do you see this? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the first question on international and domestic observers, it is the position of the United States Government that there ought to be an open process here and that observers, both national Egyptian observers and monitors as well as international observers ought to be allowed to participate and observe the scene. This is not unique to Egypt. We believe that in every country, an open electoral process is a healthy thing, there is a lot of international attention and interest in Egypt, and to these upcoming elections in November and we are discussing this routinely with the government of Egypt. I think you have to ask them their view of it, but our view is pretty straightforward.

I think there is a lot that can be done to ensure that there is greater access to Egyptian monitors and we took note of this after the Shoura Council election, that there were some problems in terms of access, both for voters and for monitors. The government has made a broad commitment to having open, clean, fair elections, and in our view, allowing monitors to be present and to have access is part of that process. The second questions is about the approach of the Obama Administration and whether there is a difference. I think it’s fair to say that I’m here for the second time this year, we are having very open discussions. It’s not just me, there is a commitment by this Administration that issues of human rights and democracy are a central piece of our bilateral agenda. Again, as I said earlier, we have a range of interests and issues with our Egyptian government’s friends and partners, but these issues of human rights and democracy are vitally important to us.

QUESTION: I have mainly one more question about sectarian tensions: you mentioned that you discussed this issue with Egyptian politicians and NGO’s and things like that. How do you see these tensions, and are there any suggestions of the American administration regarding this issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: You know, every society, including our own, faces issues of discrimination and tensions between religious, racial or ethnic groups. We have in our own society in recent weeks a situation where somebody wants to burn the Koran. What is critical is that these are private actions largely, and we are mindful of that. These are not things that we are assuming the government is making happen, but I think every government has an obligation when these tensions arise to do everything it can publicly and privately to reduce those tensions, to create an environment or a climate where people are aware that the government is very much taking a lead in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. As I said, in January the Naga Hamadi killings were a flash point of violence, it made everybody aware here and elsewhere that these tensions had risen, and I think it’s a positive step that the government has initiated a prosecution of those involved. But there is a broader obligation I think of this government, as there would be for any government, to make sure it’s doing what it can both by words and deeds to make sure that these tensions are reduced.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Our view is that international observers supplement domestic observers and monitors. But by no means are they limited to embryonic or nascent democracies. In our country, for example, international observers come routinely to observe our elections. We welcome that. There is barely any attention paid to it frankly. Both political parties have regular contact with a range of international groups, and we encourage them to come, so I don’t view this as something that is confined to only new democracies or emerging democracies. I think it’s a healthy practice. Perhaps the more important issue is that observers or monitors, whether they’re international or domestic have the whole support of the government and that means that they’re fully recognized, that they’re given the proper badges and accreditation that they are allowed access to every aspect of the electoral system. They should have access to see what is going on in the polling places, they should have access to see as the ballots are moved, they should have access to the vote counting, so for us the key issue is really access, welcoming of observation, we would prefer to see both international and domestic observers there.

QUESTION: There has been a series of events in the last few weeks that were negatively seen by the local human rights activists and politicians such as a crack down on press freedom, cancelled conferences, and arrested protesters. I was wondering… I understand you have been in office for a year but I’m sure you have been following Egypt closely, do you think there has been a lapse in the democratic reforms that were instated in the past few years only in these few months, and how do you think about the upcoming elections? What kind environment is there, and how are they going to take place this year? And as a footnote to this we get a bit unclear about how the US decides to make public statements about violations of human rights or issues of concern to human rights activists here is Egypt. Sometimes there is a public statement about sectarian violence or an arrest of an activist, and sometimes there isn’t. Is there a criteria on when do you decide to make it public and when you actually follow it behind closed doors?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The first questions I think call for an answer that is beyond my ability because I’m only here for a few days, but I would say broadly that we in the last several years, in the last 5 or 6 years, have seen an opening of the space for journalists, for freedom of expression, and certainly some of the events in the last couple of weeks by private news organizations, whether newspapers or TV stations, are cause for concern. What we don’t want to see is that there is pattern of greater restriction on critical voices, especially in this period leading up to the elections. Now that is not necessarily a government decision, but we are looking more broadly at the environment in which the press operates and we favor and have said to the government that we are certainly hopeful that every effort is made to allow multiple voices in the media to be able to do their job. We are also aware that there is kind of irregular practice of some meetings being shut down-- one on freedom of association a couple of weeks ago. Again the details are sometimes hard to piece together, but we would favor freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression as vital elements for a sustainable democratic society. This is particularly important in a period before an election. So in general those are observations about what we see.

As to when we make public statements, I have to confess I spend a lot of my time trying to answer your question. There may be less rhyme or reason in general to how we do it. It isn’t as though there is a model or a perfect system. What I would say, and I’m not just talking about Egypt, I’m talking in general, is that the US Government has lots of people working and different people always have different views on when something should be made public. What I would say more broadly is that the President’s speech at the General Assembly three weeks ago, and in Secretary Clinton’s speech on restrictions on civil society in Krakow, I think show that at the most senior level, this Administration in increasingly outspoken about human rights and democracy issues, and that translated into more activity in terms of our diplomacy, our public diplomacy, and the financial support we give to democracy and human rights organizations. So, I think from where I sit, looking broadly, there is more public commentary in the last 6 to 9 months, and I think it reflects back to a new administration that has now been there almost 20 months, and there has always been a recognition but there is an operational realization of a human rights and democracy program, and part of my visit here is one piece of that.

QUESTION: Does the US administration accept or notice its critics in other countries about human rights in Guantanamo, Baghdad, or Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes, part of my job is to help fulfill the second broad point that I mentioned, which is our commitment to have the same universal standards of international human rights apply to ourselves. Secretary Clinton has said we need to lead by example. We shouldn’t be critical of others without being first mindful of our own problems and deficiencies. We, over the last 6 months, put together the report to the UN under the Universal Periodic Review. We took it seriously. We had 18 sessions in 16 cities, where we brought together our own civil society to talk about relations and discrimination against the Muslim community. We had a meeting in Dearborn. In regards to the migrant community on the border, we had a meeting in Texas. We talked about national security issues in Washington. We talked about racial discrimination with African American groups in New York. We will appear on November 5th in Geneva and take comments from a range of countries, and we’ll take that seriously. I’m particularly focused on fulfilling the President’s commitment to close Guantanamo. I’ve spent time in Europe trying to get some European countries to take some of the people so that we can continue to close the facility. I think it’s an important commitment. The President has made very clear that no US official should be involved in coercive interrogations, and we are struggling with, but working through, issues of detention policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We take these things seriously. These are not easy challenges, but at the same time, it’s in our interest to get them right.

QUESTION:  Arabic.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t know the exact comments you are referring to. I would say in the last couple of days we’ve had frank, but very constructive discussions with senior officials in both the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We don’t always agree, but friends and partners need be and are open with each other about our disagreements. So, we regard this as part of our strategic relationship with the government of Egypt. We’ll continue to raise these issues in a respectful but direct way, and we’ll hope that we can resolve some of our differences.

QUESTION:  Arabic.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: A number of the issues I raised are subjects that we raised previously and will continue to raise in future meetings. So, for example, on the state of emergency, we raised our hopes in January that the state of emergency be allowed to expire and that there be in its place a more limited law on counterterrorism that would respect civil liberties. The government renewed the emergency law, but restricted its application to cases of terrorism and drugs. That’s a positive development, but from our perspective, we still strongly favor that the state of emergency be lifted or allowed to expire. It’s an ongoing discussion. It’s a critically important discussion.

We talked in January about issues of accountability, which was before Khaleed Sayid was killed, but that kind of a case is what we have been discussing and will continue to discuss. The events, his killing and the use of force, is something that disturbed us and disturbed many people in Egypt, but the fact that there is a prosecution is a positive step. We’ve raised in January the killings in front of the church in Naga Hamadi, which had just occurred ,and again the sectarian tensions continue, but we are, as I have said here, urging the government to do all that it can to reduce those tensions. But, we again commend the government for its prosecution of people who were involved in that murder. So, these are all discussions that are ongoing, and things change. Some of them are positive, and in some cases we haven’t seen positive stuff.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Before the election in 7 weeks, we are going to continue to support a range of civil society and democratic organizations that promote an open, fair, political process, both in terms of parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Both our bureau in the State Department and MEPI continue to look for opportunities to support organizations here that would reflect the broad spectrum of views within Egypt-- peaceful views of people that are willing and eager to work within the democratic framework. So, we are urging the government to create more space for these groups to operate without interference, and we are also eager to be a partner with some of these groups in their activities and support what they do.

QUESTION: What do you think about human rights organization in the Middle East, especially in Palestine, West Bank and Gaza?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Throughout this region and around the world, we support and encourage the growth and development of human rights organizations-- organizations that both monitor human rights conditions and advocate on behalf of prisoners and others who are vulnerable. That would be true in all the countries in all the parts of this region, including the West Bank and Gaza. I’ve met with many of the people in those organizations, and their work is critically important to helping to promote democratic and human rights objectives. Secretary of State Clinton’s speech in Krakow was focused on a growing pattern of restrictions against human rights and civil society organizations around the world. Many governments are making it more difficult for human rights and civil society organizations to function freely. Those problems certainly exist in various parts of this region, and part of what we are hoping to do now is to address those restrictions and to provide more, and to amplify the voices of civil society, to provide protection, to provide financial and technical support, and to help work with governments to create more space for those groups to operate freely.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I had planned to come to Egypt in January before the Naga Hamadi killings took place, but I was concerned about some of the same issues before while I was here. I continued to be concerned as I’ve said today about the tensions between Christian and Muslim communities here. I did not meet with the Pope. I did meet with a range of religious leaders both Christian and Muslim, and will continue to do that. I think it’s important that we do whatever we can to encourage harmony and tolerance and the ability of every person to have the freedom to practice their faith. Our job is not to prefer one religion over another; our role is to promote religious freedom, which means that every individual should pursue their faith.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the issue of Guantanamo, what I’ve said is that since January 22, 2009, the second day President Obama was in office, it’s been the policy of this Administration to close Guantanamo. We can’t do it on our own. Our system gives great power to the US Congress, and there has not been a majority in the Congress willing to provide funds for a new detention facility or to allow other aspects of the plan to close Guantanamo. We also need the cooperation of some other governments, because some of the people either need to be resettled in a third country or to be returned to their home country. We are working hard in every aspect of that, and a commitment to close Guantanamo continues to be real. And so this is an issue of great importance to me, and it’s important to the Administration.

When you ask about specific laws, I mentioned the broad subject of the continuation of the state of emergency and the emergency law. That’s one area in which we would like to see the lifting of the state of emergency and a new counterterrorism law replace it that’s narrower in scope and that protects civil liberties and due process. There are other laws on the books. The other one I mentioned I think we have some concerns about is in the area of rights and obligations of civil society NGO’s. I know there has been some discussion of a new NGO law, and what we have said is that any new law ought to open greater space and freedom for NGO’s to operate, rather than restrict their conduct.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On my visit here, I actually met one individual from the Sinai, from the Bedouin community, who had been detained for many, many months and had multiple court orders ordering his release, and yet he continued to be detained. We are concerned about that, not only about people in the Sinai, but for everyone in this society. There ought to be a system based in the rule of law that allows individuals accused of a crime, to be prosecuted and tried. If they are convicted, they are sentenced and go to jail. But when courts are ordering people to be released, they ought to be released, and so this is for us a broader concern. It may apply particularly in the Sinai with the Bedouin community, but when we talk about rule of law, when we talk about lifting the emergency, when we talk about a more predictable system based on due process, that is what we are talking about.

If I may say a couple of words by way of conclusion, as I said at the outset, I have had a very productive visit here, constructive and direct conversations with both representatives of the Egyptian government and with various civil society actors. This is my second visit here. It won’t be my last, but our concerns are very much consistent with the kind of issues we raise around the world as part of the principal of engagement of the Obama Administration. We are not holding Egypt to a different standard; we are holding every country to the same universal standard, and we start from the premise here and elsewhere that it’s up to Egyptians to build and to live their democracy in a sustainable, democratic system. Our hope is that from the outside we can help reinforce those efforts, so thank you all for coming. I will be back and I welcome meeting you again. Thanks very much.