A proposed U.S. envoy designated to advocate for the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East is stirring controversy in Egypt, but supporters of the position in Washington say it is not meant to interfere in Egypt’s policies.
“Creating a special envoy is about promoting basic human rights and our moral leadership in the world, not the promotion of interference,” wrote Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat from California and one of the proposal's co-sponsors, in an email to Al-Miṣrī al-Yawm. “The vast majority of Americans value U.S. leadership in this regard. Freedom of conscience and belief has always been a critical U.S. export.”
Egyptians, however, may not be ready for that export, which some see as more of an imposition.
Rafīq Habīb, vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, called the position “nothing more than the continued policy of U.S. interference in the affairs of other countries in the region.”
After toppling President Hosni Mubarāk, he said, Egyptians will not stand for “meddling in their affairs.”
Even Coptic officials are rejecting the move from Washington that is ostensibly in their interest.
“We seek God’s protection and nobody else’s,” said Bishop Marqus of Shubr al-Khayma
The envoy is meant to be a voice for religious minorities in the near East and South Central Asia, an area stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan. The envoy will hold the rank of ambassador, and should be a recognized expert in the region, the proposal's backers say.
No potential appointees have been named.
The envoy’s responsibilities will include protecting the rights of groups such as Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, Christians in Iraq, Bahā'īs throughout the region, and Copts in Egypt, according to the bill introduced in the House of Representatives.
In July, the 435-member House voted 402 to 20 to require that President Barack Obama instate the post. The bill still needs to go before the other half of Congress, the Senate.
Spurred by attacks on Christians in Iraq and the bombing of the Two Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, Eshoo and Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, introduced the bill in January. Since then, in Egypt’s revolution security vacuum, several instances of sectarian violence have wracked parts of the capital and other cities, killing dozens.
With the support of both Republicans and Democrats, the envoy position stands a good chance of getting the green light.
Eshoo said the envoy will elevate the issue of religious freedom and will report directly to the secretary of state, sometimes recommending action from the U.S. government. The position, if approved, will exist until 2015, at which point its necessity will be reassessed.
Eshoo, who is of Assyrian and Armenian descent and whose parents immigrated to the U.S., fleeing persecution, said she hopes the envoy will promote tolerance and religious pluralism in the region.
“I’m hopeful that the special envoy created by this legislation will elevate the crisis of the Middle East’s religious minorities, giving them the diplomatic attention they so badly need and deserve,” said Eshoo immediately following the House vote approving the bill.
The U.S. State Department could not be reached for comment.
The envoy proposition comes at a time when Egyptians are hostile to any U.S. involvement in the country.
Still remembering the U.S. government’s stalwart support for Mubarāk until his last hours, many Egyptians see any of America’s foreign policy moves as attempts to set up another obedient allied regime.
Others, swayed by the rhetoric of politicians who accuse the protest movement as being funded by American agents, see it as another cause for suspicion.
The whole attempt is ill-timed and ill-conceived, according to Nadia Mostafa, professor of international relations at the University of Cairo. Human rights issues, she said, have increasingly motivated diplomacy in recent decades. This is sometimes to good ends, but not always.
But in Egypt’s case, according to Mostafa, the plan could backfire, as sectarianism and extremism tend to rise in correlation with foreign intervention in the Middle East. The greater the interference, she said, the more legitimacy extremist and militant groups have in vilifying the U.S.
“In this time after the revolution, when everyone is talking about a new independent foreign policy, some sort of action such as this will have a negative impact,” she said. “I think it will raise more and more extremism among Muslims.”
The proposition is also indicative of the sort of selective support for human rights that America gives, according to Mostafa. She said the U.S. tends to supports those who resemble it culturally and ideologically.
“Why do we not hear about the U.S. defending the rights of Islamists to be part of the political process?” she said. “These are the same imperialistic tools.”