Amb. Anne Patterson refuses to take bait on Muslim Brotherhood

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.

The Cable

Issa gets what he wants: Pickering agrees to Benghazi interview

When it comes to settling disputes, there's nothing like subpoena power. On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) claimed victory in his two-week standoff with retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering over how to proceed with the GOP-led investigation into last year's assault in Benghazi, Libya.

"Today, Ambassador Pickering reached an agreement with the Oversight Committee to voluntarily appear for a transcribed interview and answer all questions posed by Committee investigators," Issa said in a release.  "As such, I have lifted his legal obligation to appear tomorrow for a deposition."

Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen co-chaired the Accountability Review Board, an investigation into the United States government's response to the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans. The report found "systematic failures and leadership management deficiencies" at the State Department prior to the attack. But Issa wants to know why the ARB didn't hold higher-ranking State Department officials accountable.

Pickering had resisted Issa's efforts to question him in a private interview setting, preferring a public hearing. "Depositions are usually reserved for fact witnesses and people under investigation," he told The Cable last week. "We are not fact witnesses to Benghazi and we are not under investigation."

But on Friday, Issa rejected Pickering's offer for a one-off public hearing and issued a subpoena in a move that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the committee, called a "stark example of extreme Republican overreach."

Issa defended the decision, calling a transcribed interview between Pickering and House investigators a necessary precursor to a public hearing. "A fully informed hearing, in which the Committee begins with a factual understanding of how the Board reached its conclusions, is critical to engaging in a public discussion with you about criticisms career State Department officials levied at the ARB's efforts and recommendations," Issa said.

Pickering's attendance at a pre-hearing interview will allow Issa to better control the narrative of the public hearing and run it more efficiently. Pickering says Issa is running a "political circus," and the time for closed-door interviews is over. "Now that the circus has been launched, we want to make our case in front of the public," Pickering told The Cable. Now it appears Pickering will have to wait. The date of the pre-hearing interview has not yet been scheduled.