CAIRO – When President Donald Trump hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi this week in Washington, they will have a packed agenda: the fight against terrorism, the Middle East’s multiple wars, the refugee crisis and Egypt’s anemic economy.
But what is unlikely, at least publicly, is any discussion of the plight of Aya Hijazi.
She’s an Egyptian-American humanitarian worker from Falls Church, Virginia, who has been incarcerated by the Egyptian regime for nearly three years, accused of abusing children she was seeking to help through her nonprofit organization. Those charges are widely viewed as false.
The Obama administration could not pressure Sissi’s government to release Hijazi, despite Egypt receiving $1.3 billion in military aid annually. But President Barack Obama drew a line at inviting Sissi to the White House. Under Sissi, repression has been widespread. Egypt’s security forces have jailed tens of thousands and committed human rights abuses, including torture and forced disappearances of critics and opponents.
Now, Hijazi has become a symbol of the sharp shift in U.S. policy by the Trump administration toward Sissi, placing security cooperation over human right concerns as the main barometer for engagement with authoritarian leaders. At home, Egypt is battling an Islamic State affiliate in its northern Sinai Peninsula and exerts regional influence in numerous crises where the United States is engaged, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
Sissi visit comes days after the Trump administration agreed to resume arm sales to Bahrain, removing human rights conditions imposed by Obama. Bahrain, which has brutally repressed activists and its Shiite majority, is another vital U.S. ally in the Middle East and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
A White House statement on Friday made no mention of the Sissi government’s human rights record. Trump, it said, “aims to reaffirm the deep and abiding U.S. commitment to Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity.” And the statement described Sissi thusly: “He’s called for reform and moderation of Islamic discourse, initiated courageous and historic economic reforms, and sought to reestablish Egypt’s regional leadership role.”
Sissi’s visit to the White House – the first by an Egyptian head of state since 2009 – will be viewed by supporters as a vindication of his rule and could pave the way for more oppression of Egyptians, critics say. The Trump administration, they add, should have demanded that Sissi release Hijazi and commit to additional safeguards for civil society groups before extending him the invite.
“If Trump is committed to an ‘America first’ foreign policy … he should make sure Americans get out of prison,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. Granting Sissi a White House visit, she added, is “huge leverage. To just open door with nothing given by the Egyptian president beforehand is shocking, particularly when American interests are at stake.”
Both presidents George W. Bush and Obama balanced a desire to advance human rights against the need to align with Egypt in the interests of national security. Bush pressed President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, to implement democratic reforms. Obama temporarily suspended the delivery of major weapons systems to Egypt after its security forces killed more than 800 protesters in Cairo on Aug. 14, 2013.
Trump administration officials declined to say whether Trump would press his counterpart on human rights. The president’s approach “is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way,” one administration official said. “And we believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome.”
Asked about Hijazi, White House officials said the president is aware of her case, but they did not commit to raising it with Sissi directly. “We will figure out the best way to raise this … to maximize the chances her case is resolved positively,” one official said.
Trump met with Sissi in September, two months before the 2016 election, and the two spoke by phone three days after Trump took office. Sissi was the first leader in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his election victory, and Trump has publicly described Sissi as “a fantastic guy.”
Sissi, a former military general, helped engineer the military coup that ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement in 2013. In the months after Morsi’s overthrow, security forces cracked down on opposition protests, leaving more than 1,150 people dead.
Under Sissi, the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has been targeted. The State Department’s human rights report accuses Sissi’s government of stifling basic freedoms and enforcing its repression through torture, disappearances of critics, and arbitrary arrests and killings.
A senior administration official told reporters Friday that Sissi’s visit is intended to “reboot” the bilateral relationship and continue the “positive momentum.” Trump aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the meeting, said that the president views Egypt as a crucial partner in counterterrorism operations, and that he supports Sissi’s efforts to enact economic and political reforms.
The Sissi government is also hoping to get clarity on signals from the Trump administration and Congress that they may consider branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Asked whether the administration favored blacklisting the Brotherhood, the administration official said Trump wants to hear Sissi’s views and indicated that the White House had not come to a decision.
“We, along with a number of countries, have some concerns about various activities that the Muslim Brotherhood has conducted in the region,” the official said. “But that’s going to be a discussion that will unfold between us and Egypt.”
One White House official said the administration had not received any requests from Sissi’s government to extradite Egyptian nationals detained in the United States, despite reports in the Egyptian press that say so.
Egyptian officials also plan to attract more American investment to Egypt, but the continuation and expansion of U.S. military aid is the top priority.
Former foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said that would be at the top of Sissi’s agenda, but he expressed concern about Trump’s plans to significantly cut foreign aid. The State Department has indicated that Egypt could be affected.
“If the U.S. aims to counter terrorism, it is natural they cooperate with us,” Fahmy said in a video feed posted to his Twitter account.
When asked at the White House briefing on Friday whether the United States would continue the substantial foreign and military assistance to Egypt, the senior administration official could not commit, adding that budget allocations were “still an ongoing process.”
Human rights groups are urging the Trump administration to consider Hijazi, and the tens of thousands in prison, before injecting more assistance to Egypt. The trial of Hijazi, who founded the Belady Foundation and faces allegations of trafficking and using children in protests, “has been marked by serious due process violations, including her groundless detention since May 2014,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Giving more money to the Sissi government is to the detriment of U.S. and Egyptian interests,” Margon said. “Neither side in this relationship seems interested in promoting human rights, but the gross abuses being committed by Egyptian authorities should compel Congress to keep limiting support.”
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