Hijazi is home, but Egypt's political prisoners languish, forgotten

Hijazi is home, but Egypt's political prisoners languish, forgotten
Comment: In securing Hijazi's release, Trump recognises Sisi’s political terror, but demonstrates that unless US citizens are involved, he's not interested, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
25 Apr, 2017
Hijazi was flown back to the US following three years of captivity in Egypt [AFP]

The release of American-Egyptian aid worker Aya Hijazi by the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi following the intervention of Donald Trump is undoubtedly a positive thing, but it raises several issues regarding the Trump-Sisi relationship. 

Hijazi was one of Egypt's at least 60,000 political prisoners, arrested and imprisoned as part of the Sisi regime's crackdown on NGOs in Egypt. She and her husband set up the Belady Foundation, which was geared towards helping Egypt's estimated one million street children. 

For this, both Aya and her husband, as well as six other volunteers, were arrested and imprisoned on charges ranging from abusing and torturing children, to fraud and inciting children to riot on behalf of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, all of which were discredited by human rights groups. She had been imprisoned for three years until her release on Thursday.

Egyptian prisons are among the worst in the world; inmates are routinely tortured, neglected and isolated, and Aya's release is to be welcomed. But the wider circumstances are equally noteworthy.

For example, as per the power relations that condition the visibility of these cases, Aya's case only rose to such prominence in the western media because she was a dual American-Egyptian citizen. Had she been solely an Egyptian citizen or a dual citizen of a country not as prominent as the US, it's unlikely her case would have received nearly as much attention.

Take, for example, the case of the Irish-Egyptian Ibrahim Halawa, who was only 17 when he was arrested and imprisoned in 2013 for nothing more than peacefully protesting the overthrow of the democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi. 

Nowhere did Trump use Hijazi's case to highlight the desperate plight of other political prisoners in Egypt

Ibrahim's trial, along with many political prisoners in Egypt, is constantly delayed and postponed in a policy that amounts to indefinite detention without trial, but if found guilty, he could very well face the death penalty. 

As with so many other Egyptian prisoners, he has been tortured with beatings and electrocution, while he has used the desperate tactic of going on hunger strike to force action on his case and highlight the brutal conditions faced by prisoners in Egypt, which saw a rapid decline in his already fragile health. 

While Ibrahim's case has received some attention in the Irish media, as well as extremely limited coverage in the UK media, his case - as with most other Egyptians unjustly imprisoned by Egypt - has not featured in the US political consciousness. 

  Read more: Sisi and Trump: Brotherhood on the agenda

One might argue that this is all about logistics - what could the US do about Egyptian prisoners who have no connection to the US? But it's the US that provides Egypt with $1.5 billion in aid, furnishing its military and vicious paramilitary security forces with the tools of repression, as well as making Egypt one of the US' leading geopolitical partners, as well as having extensive economic links. 

It is often incorrectly cited that the Obama administration tried to force the Sisi regime into respecting human rights and releasing prisoners by withholding aid in the months following the 2013 coup. 

However, the Obama administration refused to call what occurred in 2013 a "coup" for the express reason that it would contravene a US law that prohibits the US from providing aid to any government that gains power through a coup.

In fact, while the common narrative has it that the US delayed the aid due to human rights abuses carried out by Sisi following the coup, it actually rewarded the Sisi regime for its brutal campaign of mass imprisonment, execution, mass murder and torture that paved the way for Sisi's dubious election victory in 2014. 

Trump gets to portray himself as the president who frees Americans, while Sisi curries further favour with the already compliant Trump

US secretary of state John Kerry had already praised the coup as "restoring democracy" in 2013, and it was in June 2014, after Sisi's election, that the US released over $500 million in aid to the regime and approved the delivery of Apache helicopters after Sisi's election. 

Characteristic of the Obama administration's foreign policy, there was never any serious attempt to force Sisi to stop his campaign of murder. The case of the unjustly imprisoned dual US-Egyptian citizen Aya Hijazi certainly wasn't a priority for Obama, never mind Egyptians in general.

And this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of Hijazi's release. It'll no doubt be held up by the Trump administration as evident of Trump's success as a powerful and assertive leader and negotiation, in contrast to the feeble Obama, but it perhaps indicates something far more sinister. 

  Read more: Trump 'driving force' behind patch up of Saudi-Egypt rift

If the Obama administration at least paid rhetorical lip service to the human rights abuses of the Sisi regime, Trump has never even mentioned such things, including when the two met earlier this month. 

Indeed, Trump showered the tyrant with praise, and this meeting was widely seen as heralding Trump's shift away from Obama's rhetorical - and entirely superficial - commitment to supporting human rights in Egypt, towards candid and unconditional support for the Egyptian strongman. 

Trump's securing of the release of Hijazi might have taken some people by surprise. However, if one considers the cold mechanics behind this move, there is a logic that neither disrupts Sisi's relentless viciousness when it comes to domestic political terror, or contradicts Trump's lack of values when it comes to accepting and materially supporting such viciousness. 

Immediately after Hijazi's release and return to the US, the Trump administration released a bizarre propaganda video, laced with nationalist imagery, intercut with pictures of Trump and his daughter Ivanka meeting Hijazi in the Oval Office, all while the US patriotic anthem "Proud to be an American" plays in the background. 

Trump recognises that the charges against her were absurd and that her imprisonment was based on entirely cynical political reasons

The message - however crudely packaged - is clearly intended to show that Trump is a president who looks out for the interests of American citizens, in contrast, once again, to the weak, incompetent Obama who had "global interests" at heart. 

Nowhere of course did Trump use Hijazi's case to highlight the desperate plight of other political prisoners in Egypt, but rather turned it into a nationalist charade geared towards highlighting the greatness of Donald Trump. 

Trump gets to portray himself as the president who frees Americans, while Sisi curries further favour with the already compliant Trump - the monstrous logic behind Hijazi's imprisonment is completely overlooked by the US. 

In fact, when one examines the event further, the squalidness of this Trump-Sisi love-in becomes clear.

Trump, by securing the release of Hijazi, recognises that the charges against her were absurd and that her imprisonment was based on entirely cynical political reasons.  In other words, Trump recognises Sisi’s political terror, but he’s alright with it if US citizens are not involved. 

The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who face political terror in Egypt can be forgotten and swept aside because their lives and liberty don't matter as far as the US is concerned. 

Trump likes to envision himself as being tough on IS, with his "mother of all bombs" and his increasingly ferocious attacks on IS-held territory, but by supporting an anti-democratic tyrant like Sisi and accepting the day-today terror, violence and injustice that underlies his regime, the US president is very much endorsing the regional order of tyranny upon which IS are moulded.

Hijazi's release is a celebration for her and her family, but it has done nothing to undermine the continued brutality of Sisi, or help its victims. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.