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In Biden Era, Egypt Faces Increased US Criticism of Rights Violations
Posters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi outside a polling place in Cairo ahead of the March 26, 2018 vote. Sisi has cracked down on dissenters, allegedly holding some 60,000 political prisoners in detention. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images)

In Biden Era, Egypt Faces Increased US Criticism of Rights Violations

[Cairo] Ever since US President Joe Biden took office, figures close to Egyptian government circles, especially members of the new parliament sworn in last month, have been expressing reservations, and at times rejection, of US criticism of human rights violations in the Land of the Nile.

Biden, in remarks February 4 on “America’s place in the world” said: “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

“All this matters to foreign policy, because when we host the Summit of Democracy early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back the authoritarianism’s advance, we’ll be a much more credible partner because of these efforts to shore up our own foundations,” the president said.

“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” Biden also said in his speech, delivered at US State Department headquarters.

In July, then-candidate Biden slammed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the arrest, torture and exiling of activists.

“No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator,” Biden tweeted.

Rights groups estimate that some 60,000 detainees in Egypt are political prisoners. They include secular activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and Islamists arrested in a sweeping crackdown against dissent under Sisi.

Sisi, in a telephone interview on Saturday with broadcaster Amr Adib on MBC Masr television’s Al Hekaya show, responded to the criticism, saying: “Whoever targets me or the regime in Egypt is, in fact, targeting the Egyptian people. This is what Egyptians should know.”

In October 2020, a group of 56 US Democratic lawmakers reinforced Biden’s message in a letter to Sisi, urging the release of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience.

The legislators in their letter chastised the Egyptian leader for the tens of thousands who have been imprisoned during his administration. Many remain in jail, awaiting trial far longer than the legal limit of two years.

On January 25, Democratic Reps. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Don Beyer of Virginia announced the formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus in the US House of Representatives, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that forced long-time president Hosni Mubarak from power and which ultimately led to Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood becoming president.

“American interests have not been served by a policy of unconditional support for the Egyptian military, while downplaying the military-led government’s human rights abuses, corruption and mistreatment of American citizens,” Malinowski said. “The Egypt Human Rights Caucus will reflect and help shape the growing consensus in Congress that we need to rebalance our relationship with this important country.”

Tarek Radwan, chairman of the human rights committee in the Egyptian House of Representatives, told The Media Line that the “[US] representatives are trying to open the doors of Congress to the Muslim Brotherhood by trying to form a group within the US Congress to monitor the human rights situation in Egypt and allow them to hold briefings and conferences in the Capitol Hill buildings.

“This matter contradicts the United Nations Charter and its mandates that no state has the right to interfere, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatsoever, in the internal and external affairs of any other country,” Radwan added.

He said that asking the government why it imprisoned one of its own citizens is “interference in the internal affairs of Egypt, especially since this citizen is an Egyptian citizen. If you have certain concerns, then you have the right to present them, on the grounds that you are a friendly country and a friendly parliamentarian,” he also said. “You do not have the right to enter into the internal affairs of a country that has sovereignty over its land and that does not follow your tutelage,” the lawmaker continued.

“But if there is a comment concerning the file of human rights and democracy activists, we must explain to you why they are on trial. They are not forcibly disappeared or detained by the police forces, but are imprisoned under the authority of Egyptian law, which has a clear and explicit sovereignty and guarantees them a fair trial,” Radwan said.

For the first time, Congress has made disbursement of military aid to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners, without providing the secretary of state the option to waive the conditions in the interests of US national security.

Some $75 million out of a total $1.3 billion in military aid earmarked for US fiscal year 2021 is conditioned on Egypt making clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law.

An additional $225 million depends on Egypt’s progress on human rights and democracy.

“This is a kind of unnecessary tutelage, because the information must be obtained from the correct sources. One of the most important of these sources is the Egyptian parliament, and there must be very strong relations between the Congress and the Egyptian parliament, as is the case between the executive authorities of the two countries,” Radwan said.

“If you are the institution that approves this aid, i.e., the Congress, you must get your information from the Egyptian parliament,” he added.

Radwan pointed out that no US congressman has visited Egypt since 2016, while Egyptian members of parliament have during that time visited Capitol Hill “to clarify the facts and respond to the false allegations from the terrorist group [the Muslim Brotherhood]. Western parliaments have no right to communicate with banned groups,” he said.

He said there was one visit from a congressional staffer when he served as chair of the foreign relations committee in the last parliament. “Does this promote good parliamentary relations between friendly or partner countries?” he asked.

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. US military and economic aid to Egypt from 1948 to 2011 totaled approximately $72 billion.

Amnesty International said in a damning new report that prison officials in Egypt are subjecting prisoners of conscience and others held for political reasons to torture and cruel and inhuman conditions of detention, and are deliberately denying them health care to punish dissent.

The report, also released on the 10th anniversary of the start of the Egypt’s 2011 revolution, is titled: “‘What Do I Care If You Die?’: Negligence and Denial of Health Care in Egyptian Prisons.”

It highlights how prison authorities’ callousness has led to or contributed to deaths in custody, and caused irreparable harm to prisoners’ health.

“The authorities go further in intentionally depriving men and women, detained solely for exercising their human rights and others held for political reasons, health care or adequate food and family visits. It is deplorable that the Egyptian authorities are seeking to intimidate and torment human rights defenders, politicians, activists and other actual or perceived opponents by denying them health care,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

You do not have the right to enter into the internal affairs of a country that has sovereignty over its land and that does not follow your tutelage

Abdel-Moneim Said, the CEO of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper and head of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies’ advisory board, and a  senator in the Egyptian Shura Council – Consultative Assembly, told The Media Line: “Yes, there are mistakes in Egypt, but I think that the right to disagree is widely available as long as there is no incitement or sarcasm. Of course, we hope for more freedom and progress in reform, such as holding elections for local councils.”

He asserted that another revolution like the one that began on Jan. 25, 2011 and overthrew Mubarak “will not happen again.” And, he added “The Muslim Brotherhood will not return [to power] again.”

Said added that Egyptian officials will not talk to those who sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood or their allies. These people, he said, have adopted the brotherhood’s arguments and then market them to the US State Department, or to the Brookings Institute and other think tanks.

In January 2018, Sisi said, referring to the revolution, that “what happened in Egypt seven or eight years ago will not be repeated” and that he might ask the citizens to give him a second mandate to confront those he described as evil and those who wish to tinker with the security of Egypt.

Three months later Sisi was elected to a second term as president, which expires in 2024.

It is deplorable that the Egyptian authorities are seeking to intimidate and torment human rights defenders, politicians, activists and other actual or perceived opponents by denying them health care

Attorney Negad El-Borai, a well-known figure in Egypt’s human rights movement and the head of the legal unit at United Group for Law, told The Media Line that many of the current arrests in Egypt are “the settling of old scores by the security services” against people who participated in the 2011 revolution, “and has nothing to do with current policy and the preservation of stability and development.”

“This is justified to the political leadership as measures necessary to complete the process of building the Egypt we dream of. … In fact, it does not advance anything, but rather drives more meaningless repression. What is happening is that people are being held accountable for political positions they adopted under circumstances that do not currently exist,” he said.

In addition to young people, many of those arrested are in their 60s and 70s, “because they angrily expressed their views as a result of frustration at not achieving the dreams of democracy for which they went out in the 2011 revolution,” El-Borai said.

“Certainly, society and the state have other tools to block ideas that the state apparatus does not want,” instead of arresting opponents, he added. “For shame. This method inspires a desire for vengeance and it will be difficult to contain it after these detainees die in prison,” he said.

He questioned why the current regime lumps all opponents into one category.

“I know certain personalities inside prison who would prefer to go to hell rather than have the Muslim Brotherhood come to power again, and what you are doing now is making them unite against you,” El-Borai said. He called this “crazy,” noting that the liberal detainees “could stand in your camp and support you against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“Indeed, there is no real desire to change the system, because there is no alternative for the political forces from which the authority is arrested or outside the prison, any alternative to the current system. And the experience of January 25 confirmed this,” he said.

“What I fear is that we will repeat what happened with Mubarak before the January 25 revolution and enter into another state of political instability that will be with us for another five or six years,” El-Borai concluded.

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