Egypt’s president steps up arrests of critics before Biden takes office

The detainees could be used as a bargaining chip if the government comes under pressure from the new US administration, a human-rights official said.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the funeral of former president Hosni Mubarak (photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the funeral of former president Hosni Mubarak
Although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, this does not mean that Cairo is happy to see a new US leader, especially one from the Democratic Party, which is expected to place greater emphasis on human rights in the Middle East.
There has been a recent surge in human-rights violations in Egypt, monitors say. Many Egyptians expect the new US administration to pressure Sisi over human rights, a radical change in approach from outgoing President Donald Trump, who once called the 64-year-old former general his “favorite dictator.”
Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told The Media Line that Trump defended Sisi even when other US officials opposed measures taken by Egyptian security forces.
"Instead of criticizing Sisi in proportion to the horror of this scandal, Trump has publicly … on more than one occasion, praised the abilities of his ‘favorite dictator’ to suppress his people,” said Hassan, one of the founders of the Egyptian human-rights movement in the 1980s. “Trump even besieged the [Republican-controlled] Senate over Sisi's human-rights violations. He curbed angry reactions in his State Department to Sisi's delays in releasing two Egyptian Americans."
Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, was imprisoned for nearly three years in Egypt on child-abuse charges that were widely regarded as specious. Hijazi and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, had been arrested in 2014 and charged with abusing children in their care. They were freed in 2017 following a Trump-Sisi meeting at the White House. In 2011, they launched a nonprofit organization called the Beladi Foundation to help child political prisoners. The group also cared for and educated street children.
Human-rights groups said the charges against the couple were unfounded and accused the government of cracking down on nongovernmental organizations.
Former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Marcelle M. Wahba, who also served as a diplomat at the US Embassy in Cairo, told The Media Line that the increase in arrests is hurting Egypt's image.
"I believe there has been an uptick in arrests in Egypt over the past year targeting a variety of activists including medical doctors, Christians, women, lawyers and human-rights professionals, that has harmed Egypt’s global reputation and credibility, given that all are indiscriminately charged with being members of terrorist organizations and many are kept in year-long rotating detentions," said Wahba,  president emeritus of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Biden's previous experience will play a major role in how the new administration deals with Sisi, she said.
"I believe the future Biden administration’s foreign policy will focus on more traditional American diplomatic strategies that will include concerns over protection of human rights globally, including in Egypt. President-elect Biden knows Egypt very well from his time as vice president and years as a senator. I believe he and his team will include the human-rights portfolio in the bilateral dialogue with Egypt," Wahba said.
During his presidential campaign, Biden slammed Trump for supporting Sisi, signaling that he will take a harder line. In a tweet in July, Biden warned Sisi that if he became president, there would be "no more blank checks for him."
Hassan said Sisi and his loyalists were upset that Biden won.
"The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election sent a great shock wave” to Sisi, he said.
Sisi feels that he has lost his staunchest supporter, Hassan added.
"Losing Trump is a source of worry for Sisi. What compounds [his] concern is that the new president comes from the Democratic Party, and there is [in that party] a greater interest in democracy and human rights than [in] the Republican Party. And for years, the Democratic Party has been criticizing … human rights in Egypt," he said.
Last month, while the US was still determining who its next president would be, Egyptian security forces arrested three members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). 
According to the EIPR, the three men were charged with "membership in a terrorist organization" and "using social-media accounts to publish false news and information that may harm public peace and security." 
None of the three defendants was presented with evidence that supported the charges, the group said.
Hussein Baoumi, Egypt researcher at the human-rights organization Amnesty International, said the regime commonly convicts dissidents without showing them evidence.
The Egyptian media is controlled by people close to Sisi, Baoumi said, adding that the few independent media outlets located in Egypt were mostly online.
"They are censored in Egypt, and you can access them either on Facebook or through VPN [Virtual Private Networks], which are also restricted in Egypt. The government is targeting journalists and carries out mass arrests of journalists and jails them for a long time,” he said.
The government’s opponents have accused it of restricting political parties and human-rights organizations. 
Omar Rushdi is the pseudonym of an Egyptian journalist arrested in 2019 for covering protests. He told The Media Line that he was tortured by the police for filming the demonstrations.
"They will make sure they instill so much fear in your mind and heart, that you never think about doing the same thing again," he said.
Rushdi still lives in Cairo but has stopped working as a journalist because of the way he was treated.
"I wasn't allowed to talk with my family. I didn't have a lawyer, and they kept accusing me of being a terrorist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood., he said, adding that his passport was confiscated by the security forces as a punishment. 
Officials used "broad terrorism laws to arrest people," Baoumi said. "The government has its own definition of terrorism." 
"Egypt has become an open-air prison for [government] critics," he added.
Hassan, who lives in self-imposed exile in France and was sentenced in absentia in August to 15 years in prison for allegedly publishing fake news and insulting the judiciary, said Sisi is making more arrests in order to prepare for the new US administration, which takes office on Jan. 20, 2021. He said that if Biden squeezes Sisi, the Egyptian president will "use the detainees as a bargaining chip to alleviate any pressure on him."
"He knows that after January 20th there will be some kind of negotiations with the Biden administration on the issue of human rights. Unfortunately, Sisi treats prison detainees like hostages," he said.
The human-rights situation in Egypt under the general turned president is the worst situation in decades, he said.
"Repression under Sisi's rule has escalated in an unprecedented way, more than any period in Egypt's modern history. It doesn’t even compare to the proverbial repression of the Nasser era," he said. 
Baoumi echoed Hassan's assertions, saying Egyptians were witnessing the worst crackdown on human rights in modern history, with tens of thousands of Sisi’s critics in prison.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say there is a human rights crisis in Egypt," he said.
"We are talking about a government that is committing widespread and systematic violations, including torture, forced disappearances, mass trials, military trials for civilians, unfair trials where confessions are extracted under torture," Baoumi said.
Opposition and human-rights organizations insist that the lack of a unified and strong response from the international community and especially from the EU and US, has emboldened Sisi and the Egyptian government. 
The United States provides $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Egypt.
"The possible scenarios for the relationship between the new administration and Egypt will depend on several factors. Among them is the priority of Egypt on the agenda of a president who inherited a country whose elections revealed a sharp division in society over its values ​​and priorities,” Hassan said.
“Biden is also inheriting a nearly collapsed network of relations with America's most important allies in Europe and the world. One of the most important factors affecting the formulation of the new administration’s relationship with Egypt is the Biden team’s stability in its strategy for the Middle East, which ranges from completely backing the region to a very limited engagement with it. The nature of Sisi's own interactions in the next few months will play a role in the new formulation. Also, what is happening in Egypt itself can play an influential role," he said.
Baoumi says the change in the White House will bring a change in how the US government deals with President Sisi. 
"Now with the new administration, the feeling in Cairo is that the Biden administration won’t turn a blind eye to Egypt's human-rights violations as much as the Trump administration did," he said. 
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