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In Egypt, Kerry gets an earful from the opposition

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt was something the US has long feared. But in Cairo today, Secretary of State John Kerry was told that Egypt's secular-leaning opposition sees the US as an ally of the Islamist movement.

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Opposition protesters burn a drawing of US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Egypt.

Amr Nabil/AP

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John Kerry arrived in Egypt yesterday on his first visit since becoming secretary of State amid criticism that the United States has reverted to an old pattern of behavior in Egypt: overlooking abuses of the president in hopes of maintaining stability and peace with Israel.

Some opposition leaders refused to meet Secretary Kerry, protesting what they see as unreserved US support for Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, despite troubling and undemocratic behavior.

“There is a genuine feeling by many that either there's something that the US is too chicken to say, or that there is indeed a deal made between the Brotherhood and the US over the future of the region and thus the US is being accommodating accordingly,” says Bassem Sabry, an op-ed writer and blogger who writes about the opposition. Editor's note: This sentence has been edited to clarify the nature of Mr. Sabry's work.

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In a meeting with business leaders last night, Kerry sought to dispel that idea. “We come here – I come here – on behalf of President Obama, committed not to any party, not to any one person, not to any specific political point of view, but filled with the commitment that Americans have to democracy, to a robust commitment to our values – to human rights, to freedom of expression, to tolerance,” he said.

Among those opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, the belief that the US struck a deal with the group has been common since Mr. Morsi's election last summer. Even those who don't believe a backroom deal was made have been angry about what they feel has been a refusal of the US to criticize antidemocratic moves made by Morsi. 

Last year Morsi issued a constitutional declaration that made his actions immune from any judicial challenge, took legislative power from the military and gave it to himself, and sacked the public prosecutor, appointing a new one seen as loyal to the president. He later rescinded some of the measures after he had used the power to help pass a controversial new constitution over the objections of the opposition.

More recently, the president's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) party passed an election law that the opposition says favors the FJP.

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Consolidation?

His opponents say he has been more intent on consolidating power than seeking the consensus needed to overcome Egypt's political crisis. The president's supporters say the opposition are sore losers who can't accept their defeat at the ballot box.

None of these measures drew public rebukes from the US, and many opponents of the FJP and the Brotherhood feel there isn't any private pressure going on, either. They say it reminds them of the time of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, when the US overlooked internal repression.

Unlike for most of the Mubarak years, Egypt is no longer a very stable place. In Mansoura, one of several cities in the Nile Delta and along the Suez Canal that have witnessed protests against the president in the past week, there is real anger.

“We think the American administration is responsible for what's happening in Egypt,” said Abdel Meguid Rashed, head of the Popular Current, an opposition group, in Mansoura. Activists are angry that the US has not spoken out about police violence against protesters. One man was killed in Mansoura when a police vehicle ran him over in the early hours of Saturday, say witnesses. Dozens of others have been wounded by birdshot and tear gas canisters fired by police.

The opposition would like to see stronger public statements from the US about moves like the constitutional declaration, says Mr. Sabry. “I think many are hoping more than anything else for stronger backroom diplomacy. It's not that they want the US to be on the side of the opposition, but they feel there's a bias, and they wish the US could play a better role in making sure the political process is fair and equitable and just.”

Not voting

US officials did call on opposition leaders to cancel a planned boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections. That deepened the opposition's perception of US bias, says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “When the opposition does something they don't like, they're willing to state it boldly, and when Morsi does something they don't like, they're not. And that's not particularly useful.”

Mr. Hanna argues that the US too often reduces its relationship with Egypt to the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, overvaluing the importance of US pressure in maintaining the treaty and underestimating the Egyptian interest in keeping the peace.

“Fundamentally we shouldn't view the relationship as so fragile that we are pushed into unseemly compromises,” he says. “I don't think we should be browbeating the Egyptians, but I also don't think we have the option of staying silent in the face of really worrisome developments.... Silence is its own form of support.”

This morning Kerry met with 11 representatives of Egyptian civil society, some of whom expressed their worries that rights and freedoms were deteriorating under Morsi. Bahey El Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said Kerry asked participants if they thought Egypt was moving backward. Mr. Hassan's response was that the situation in Egypt now is worse than it was under Mubarak.

“Under Mubarak we were suffering, yes, from bloody repression by police, which was at its maximum under the 18 days of the revolution. What we witness now is a daily bloody aggression,” he says he told Kerry. Also troubling is that supporters and members of the ruling party have sometimes joined police in attacking protesters, he says, and what he called a “massive destructive attack against the judiciary” by Morsi.

“The US administration is seen by average Egyptians ... as supporting the Brotherhood as it supported the Mubarak regime, and it doesn't care enough for human rights abuses,” he says. But Kerry “was keen to convey the message that the US is supporting an elected president, elected by the Egyptian people, and the US didn't choose or elect Morsi.”

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