Canada and the U.S. are failing to make full use of the economic and diplomatic tools available to combat repression in Egypt, say two experts on the region..

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the restoration of $575 million in military aid to Egypt -- money that was partly withheld after the military takeover that saw former president Mohammed Morsi removed from power.

But a day later, in a move condemned by journalists around the world, three Al-Jazeera journalists, one of them Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, were sentenced to years in prison on charges of spreading false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood.

'Egypt needs an IMF loan desperately in order to open up an entire channel of foreign investment and foreign aid coming to them … both Canada and the U.S. have executive board members that can veto this.' —​Bessma Momani, Centre for International Governance Innovation

“What the ruling says is that in Egypt journalism can be a crime,” said Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a reporter with the American independent news program Democracy Now.

But political leaders in Canada and the U.S. were largely silent, leaving the world to believe they accept the kinds of human rights abuses becoming widespread under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, observers say.

“We have to do something to say that is not acceptable. There are so many tools at our disposal,” said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.  

Egypt wants IMF loan

“Egypt needs an IMF loan desperately in order to open up an entire channel of foreign investment and foreign aid coming to them. To do that, both Canada and the U.S. have executive board members that can veto this,” she said in an interview with CBC’s The Current.

El-Sissi is popular with his people and riding a wave of hyper-nationalism, despite mass arrests, brutal crackdowns on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and a clampdown on freedom of expression.

“There’s a lot of tools at our disposal, and I see us just turning away and ignoring the situation, and one can’t help but wonder why,” Momani said.

There are anywhere from 14,000 to 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt, ranging from secular liberals to Islamists — anyone who disagrees with the current regime, she said.

The West can have an effect on Egypt’s regime through tourism and business, as well as diplomatic means, she said.

“The foreign direct investment that Egypt desperately, desperately needs now can only happen if it’s encouraged. We have in Washington today an entire delegation of Egyptian businesses looking for opportunities,” Momani said.

That is the kind of tool that can be used to shape the future of Egypt, she said, questioning why Kerry agreed to renew military aid to such a regime.

Military relationship with U.S.

Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute, said he believes withholding U.S. military aid would not have been effective. Egypt’s military and the Pentagon have a close relationship that has extended through several regimes, even under former president Morsi.

 “We should be thinking about our relationship with Egypt as comprising multiple tools. Military aid is one kind of tool intended to bolster the strategic military-to-military relationship, but there are other tools we should be using when it comes to these kinds of domestic, political and judicial issues,” Trager told The Current.

“This is a very tense domestic situation, and we have to be very realistic about our power to shake it from 6,000 miles away,” he added.

Egypt’s military is cracking down on anyone showing signs of connection with the former ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, because senior military leaders fear for their lives from the group, Trager said.

He agrees that the world can put pressure on Egypt through its economy, which is suffering from high unemployment and a hobbled business sector.

El-Sissi was talking about austerity measures as recently as today because of the need for Egypt to get its ballooning debt under control.

“Our economic aid, our willingness to send business delegations, the kind of messaging that we send to the business community in particular about Egypt’s trajectory — all of those are fair game and might have an impact,” Trager said.