Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and reported shoo-in for assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, sat down with the Egyptian English-language news site Ahram Online recently for a wide-ranging discussion on the topics du jour in post-Mubarak Egypt.
During the chat, journalist Sarah El-Rashidi brought up a number of developments in Egypt that have angered Western observers and fueled disappointment in President Mohamed Morsy, from the controversial IMF loan intended to keep the country's sinking economy afloat to the seeming rise in incidents of sectarian violence and sexual harassment under the new regime.
But Patterson, ever the diplomat, largely didn't bite. Her careful comments indicate just how carefully the Obama administration has sought to balance between strengthening ties with the Islamist government and criticizing its increasingly authoritarian behavior, even as liberal Egyptians increasingly complain that the United States is treating the Muslim Brotherhood-led government with kid gloves and Egypt-watchers in Washington accuse the administration of losing focus after Mubarak's ouster.
On working with the Muslim Brotherhood
Ahram Online: How is the US government dealing with Egypt's new Islamist government?...
Anne Patterson: The fact is they ran in a legitimate election and won ... Of course it is challenging to be dealing with any new government. However, at the state institutional level, we are for instance still liaising with the same military and civil service personnel, and thus have retained the same long-established relations.
On human rights:
Ahram Online: According to US-based Human Rights Watch, rights violations have risen considerably since Mubarak's ouster. How is the US helping address the issue?
Anne Patterson: We try and speak out about Egypt's international treaties, such as the UN covenant on civil and political rights. We do not agree with claims that human rights violations are worse than ever under the new regime.
It cannot be ignored that freedom of expression has improved in a number of ways under the new regime, exemplified by the media and the freedom to talk openly and publicly chastise political figures. Look at the press, or any of the political talk shows on TV: Egyptians did not have such freedoms under Mubarak.
On the alleged rise in sexual assaults:
AP: In relation to the rise in sexual assault after the revolution, the minister of interior seems eager to address this problem and has agreed to instigate a training programme that will train police men and women how to investigate sexual assault cases. This programme will involve police officers travelling to the US for training and close alignment with female NGOs.
It is important to take into consideration, however, that since the revolution, people are less scared and more willing to report sexual abuses; hence the rise in reporting. That does not necessarily imply that the actual figures have increased, but that perhaps reporting has risen as victims are more confident and prepared to report violations.
I bet there will be an explosion in the number of sexual assault cases reported in the near future. All things considered, clearly, substantial progress still needs to be made.
On the growing influence of hard-line Islamist political movements
AO: What is the US perception of the Salafist Nour Party and its policies?
AP: The Nour Party won 25 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in 2012. As Americans, we try to collaborate with all legitimate parties.
The Obama administration has largely confined its criticism of Morsy's government to lower-level officials.
On Monday, for instance, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell expressed concern about "the growing trend of efforts to punish and deter political expression in Egypt," in wake of defamation charges against a pair of Egyptian journalists who spoke critically of President Morsy. "Numerous individuals, including journalists, bloggers, and activists have been detained, and some are being charged and put on trial for allegedly defaming government figures," Ventrell said.
One Washington Middle East hand tells The Cable that a White House official told him that even that statement required no small amount of internal wrangling. "You have no idea how much work it took to get the statement in there," the official said. "A lot of bureaucratic politicking."
The White House last week named a new senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, Prem Kumar, who replaced Steve Simon. Simon left the administration in January to head the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Kumar, who is well-regarded among insiders but little known elsewhere, has served at the White House since April 2009, following a stint at the State Department. At the NSC, he previously worked on a number of regional issues, including Egypt.