US criticises Egypt's lack of leadership

The US has dropped its "velvet glove" handling of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government, as its ambassador to Cairo openly criticised a "catastrophic" lack of leadership in the country and curbs on press freedom.

US drops criticises Egypt's lack of leadership

Muslim brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and US Ambassador Anne Patterson in Cairo last year Photo: STR/AFPGETTY

America has been accused by liberal activists of tacitly supporting the new Islamist leadership, even after it introduced a hardline new constitution. Bahieddin Hassan, a human rights activist who briefed President Barack Obama on a trip to Cairo three years ago wrote an open letter this month accusing him of “giving cover” to the regime and “allowing it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression”.

But in her speeches, Anne Patterson, the ambassador, implicitly accused the government of “catastrophic” lack of leadership on the failing economy and called for it to develop a “thicker skin” in dealing with press criticism.

Western diplomats and politicians have quietly met Brotherhood leaders for years, even when it was a banned organisation under the regime of a man they saw as a strategic ally, President Hosni Mubarak.

Since the revolution, the White House’s attitude has been ambiguous, but it has refrained from overt criticism, even over a new constitution which hardened Sharia law, backtracked on human rights promises and made “insulting people” a criminal offence.

At a speech in Alexandria last week, though, Mrs Patterson referred to Egypt’s growing economic crisis, with the currency in freefall and a long delay in approving a $4.8 billion (£3.1 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund.

“Every economy goes through bad periods, but economies only recover when they are tended,” she said. “The most catastrophic path is for the government and the political leadership of the country – whether in power or in opposition – to avoid decisions, to show no leadership, to ignore the economic situation of tEgypt: setback for Brotherhood as its choice for Grand Mufti is rejected he country.”

On Sunday, she opened up a new front at a conference on broadcasting regulation, with a thinly-disguised attack on the new constitution.

“Those, like me, who find themselves in the public eye, are well-advised to work on acquiring thicker skins instead of wasting time and resources suing their detractors,” she said.

She said that in the “dramatically changed landscape” of the last two years new television stations and newspapers had sprung up and existing publications “reinvigorated”. But she suggested there was now a backlash.

“Let’s consider what’s happened during the last few weeks,” she said.

“We have seen court cases launched against journalists simply for speaking their mind. We have seen quite alarming attempts to intimidate journalists by encircling their studies at Media City, with little response from the authorities.

“One leading and reputable journalist told me a couple of days ago that his news outlet had been sued 200 times. This is clearly harassment and a distraction from the important work of the media.”

The Egyptian government is facing a spreading crisis of authority with a general strike in Port Said, at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, and other cities. Nevertheless, critics say it is still pursuing a heavily political agenda, including harassing journalists.

Hani Shukrallah, until last week editor of Ahram Online, the internet arm of the biggest state-owned newspaper, said he had been forced out after a Muslim Brotherhood-appointed chairman took over.

Mr Shukrallah, who was also once sacked by the Mubarak regime, said the revolution was supposed to have ended direct government control of state-owned media, but it had just resumed under new political leadership.

“We had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do,” he said. “The Brotherhood didn’t even contemplate it. They tried to use the same mechanism that had been built up for decades under Mubarak to take over.”

Michael Hanna, an Egypt analyst at The Century Foundation, said the Obama administration was reversing a “back-pedal” over the constitution.

“Freedom of expression has all along been something of a red line,” he said. “In private discussions this was one of the issues that was laid down as something that shouldn’t be crossed.” A spokesman for Mr Morsi said there was no comment, but referred to a recent statement saying “freedom of thought and opinion shall be guaranteed” under the constitution.

It added that “human dignity” should not be undermined under the guise of free speech, but said that many recent prosecutions were brought by individuals rather than the state.

“The policy of the administration is to launch complaints only in the cases where fabricated news is circulated,” it said.

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