Activists, dissidents and analysts have criticised the US administration’s suddenly warm relations with Egypt amid Egyptian officials’ escalating threats against critics living in exile in the US, including arrests of family members or contacts in Egypt.
Sherif Mansour, an outspoken human rights advocate in Washington with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said many of those imprisoned face spurious charges.
“It’s a hostage negotiation and it has been all along,” said Mansour, describing the arrest of his cousin Reda Abdel-Rahman by Egyptian security forces last August as an attempt to intimidate Mansour into silence.
Abdel-Rahman has been imprisoned without trial for nine months and a dozen member of Mansour’s family have been detained and interrogated by Egyptian security agents since then.
“They ask about us, when we last spoke to them, what we spoke about,” Mansour said. “They go through their phones – and if they don’t provide passwords they’re beaten in order to find anything that connects them to us, including Facebook conversations.
“It’s why we haven’t been in touch: I’ve stopped talking to my family in order not to give them any reason to harass them,” he said.
Joe Biden and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, held their first official call in late May, four months after Biden took office.
As a candidate, Biden promised that there would be “no blank checks” for the man Donald Trump once addressed as “my favourite dictator”.
Yet when they spoke, the two leaders discussed human rights in terms of a “constructive dialogue” and “reaffirmed their commitment to a strong and productive US-Egypt partnership”, according to the White House.
This followed Egyptian mediation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including a recent rare public visit by the Egyptian intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, travelling to Cairo – the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.
HA Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said: “The latest crisis in the Palestinian occupied territories and the Israeli bombardment reminded DC of a very clear and present reality: that there is no capital in the region that has direct and workable relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank other than Cairo.”
Biden’s administration capped his warm exchange with the Egyptian president with a decision to request $1.38bn (£1bn) in annual military aid for Egypt – the maximum amount possible.
A coalition of human rights groups expressed “strong disappointment” at the administration’s decision. “President Biden campaigned on ‘no more blank checks’ for Egypt’s regime, but requesting the same amount the United States has provided annually since 1987 despite Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record is, effectively, another blank check,” they said.
Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has overseen the broadest crackdown on dissent and free speech in Egypt’s recent history.
Tens of thousands remain behind bars for their political views or for activities as benign as a Facebook comment; Egypt’s prisons are at double their capacity, according to Amnesty International.
Yet US law contains mechanisms to curb cooperation with countries that threaten US citizens and dissidents abroad. These include the Leahy law, which stops the US funding foreign security forces that violate human rights; the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to sanction human rights abusers and prevent them from entering the US; and the “Khashoggi ban”, curbing visas for those engaged in anti-dissident activities.
The White House did not initially respond when contacted for comment on this issue. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told a congressional hearing this week that “I think we’ve seen some progress in some areas” of human rights in Egypt, but that “when it comes to freedom of expression, when it comes to civil society, there are very significant problems that we need to address directly with our Egyptian partners – and we are. So we hope and expect to see progress there.”
US-based activists expressed disappointment at lawmakers’ reluctance to employ sanctions against Egyptian officials, who they say more than qualify for punitive measures.
“The fact that Egypt feels it can get away with taking citizens hostage, and so far it did, will continue to be a stain on the Biden administration,” said Mansour. (Source: The Guardian)