US lawmakers slam Trump for ignoring Egypt's rights record
From the perspective of the Egyptian government, the Monday meeting between US President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was a major victory.
The US leader praised his Egyptian counterpart as doing a “fantastic job” adding, “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi.”
While former President Barak Obama refused to grant Sisi legitimacy by inviting him into the White House on an official state visit, the real estate mogul turned Commander in Chief showered Sisi with praise without once mentioning Cairo’s flagrant human rights abuses.
However, US lawmakers expressed outrage at the dramatic shift in US policy towards the Egyptian regime.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, told The New Arab, “I was disappointed to see that he (Trump) didn’t raise human rights.” The New Hampshire lawmaker added that the Committee would be meeting later with Sisi and she “guaranteed” that the issue of human rights would be raised.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) contrasted the warm embrace offered to the Egyptian President with how Trump treated longtime European partners.
“You can’t help but notice the cold shoulder that was given to Angela Merkel who is welcoming refugees from the Middle East and the warm embrace given to Sisi,” he explained to The New Arab.
Murphy concluded that the message to the world appears to be that “if you are a democratic ally, we’re moving further away from you but if you have serious human rights questions surrounding your regime, we’re ready to move closer.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is the third highest jailer of journalists worldwide.
Since President Sisi took over the country after a 2013 military coup, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that Egyptian security forces have detained at least 41,000 individuals, many of them political activists.
|HRW notes that under Sisi, “Egyptian police and National Security agents have routinely used torture and enforced disappearance against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents with near impunity.”|
HRW notes that under Sisi, “Egyptian police and National Security agents have routinely used torture and enforced disappearance against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents with near impunity.”
Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) told The New Arab, “It is important for Congress to reassert its role, especially in Foreign Policy and realizing that if they don’t speak out and raise these issues (Egyptian human rights) that they may not be a part of the conversation.”
Bockenfeld added that he spoke with Mohammad Soltan, the influential Egyptian-American human rights activist who noted that it “often feels like the US, as a whole has abandoned you.”
But, each time a Senator speaks out publicly in support of Egyptian human rights, these efforts provide “new hope and encouragement to the reformers,” Bockenfeld emphasized.
Sending a clear message to the Trump administration, both Republican and Democratic Senators introduced a resolution on Monday as Sisi began his Washington visit that “demands an immediate end to the harassment and interference in the operations of independent civil society and media organizations in Egypt.”
The resolution also called for the immediate release of all American citizens detained “unjustly” including Aya Hijazi, who was arrested more than two years ago while running a child welfare clinic in Cairo.
The bipartisan resolution, sponsored by top Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee highlighted the 2016 State Department Human Rights report, which noted “conditions in the prisons and detention centers were harsh and potential life-threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, poor infrastructure, and poor ventilation.”
|We can’t stay silent, in Egypt or elsewhere, when crackdowns on the media, civil society, and political opponents take place.
- Senator Ben Cardin
The top Senate Democrat on the committee Ben Cardin (D-MD) added, “We can’t stay silent, in Egypt or elsewhere, when crackdowns on the media, civil society, and political opponents take place.”
“Part of the reason Sisi came to DC is for the legitimacy and political endorsement of the United States on his visit. If he had left with only getting praise from President Trump and relative silence from Congress, that would have been an unconditional win for him,” explained Bockenfeld.
“These kind of speeches from Leahy and Rubio and resolution from Cardin complicates that narrative so he doesn’t come away with a clean of a win as I think he would have hoped.”
While emphasizing that Egypt is an important ally of the United States, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The New Arab, “the human rights issue should not be subordinated. It’s a very important.”
When asked about the President’s decision not to publicly mention the Egyptian government’s crackdown on dissent at his meeting with Sisi, the former 2016 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate responded, “I think it’s a mistake. You have a combination of the imprisonment [of] clearly secular NGO leaders, like our Virginia citizen, and you have a practice of persecution of journalists. I think these are issues that need to be raised.”
Kaine added that when the US president is publicly silent on human rights, Sisi “would perceive from President Trump is that these issues are not important to him.”
In one of the most powerful speeches before the Senate floor on Tuesday, Republican lawmaker Marco Rubio (R-FL) noted that the Egyptian human rights conditions are “at its worst in decades.”
Rubio expressed concern that Egypt’s continual crackdown may create the type of instability seen elsewhere in the region including Syria and Libya.
“We simply cannot in the national interests of our country turn a blind eye to the ongoing repression of Egyptian citizens by their government. It weakens our moral standing in the world and as I have already said numerous times makes Egypt less secure.”
Aaron Magid is a Washington-based journalist. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Al-Monitor, and Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronMagid