Char­ity worker freed from Cairo jail is back in U.S.

Trump sent air­craft and his mil­i­tary aide to bring group home, of­fi­cial says

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER AND KAREN DEYOUNG

An Egyp­tian Amer­i­can char­ity worker who was im­pris­oned in Cairo for three years and be­came the global face of Egypt’s bru­tal crack­down on civil so­ci­ety re­turned home to the United States late Thurs­day af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion qui­etly ne­go­ti­ated her re­lease.

Pres­i­dent Trump and his aides worked for sev­eral weeks with Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi to se­cure the free­dom of Aya Hi­jazi, 30, a U.S. cit­i­zen, as well as her hus­band, Mo­hamed Has­sanein, who is Egyp­tian, and four other hu­man­i­tar­ian work­ers. Trump dis­patched a U.S. gov­ern­ment air­craft to Cairo to bring Hi­jazi and her fam­ily to Wash­ing­ton.

Hi­jazi, who grew up in Falls Church, Va., and grad­u­ated from Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, was work­ing in Cairo with the Be­lady Foun­da­tion, which she and her hus­band es­tab­lished as a haven and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter for street chil­dren in Cairo.

The cou­ple and their co-work­ers had been in­car­cer­ated since May 1, 2014, on child abuse and traf­fick­ing charges that were widely dis­missed by hu­man rights work­ers and U.S. of­fi­cials as false. Vir­tu­ally no ev­i­dence was ever pre­sented against them, and for nearly three years they were held as hear­ings were in­ex­pli­ca­bly post­poned and trial dates can­celed. Hu­man rights groups al­leged that they were abused in de­ten­tion.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion un­suc­cess­fully pressed Sissi’s gov­ern­ment for their re­lease. It was not un­til Trump moved to re­set U.S. re­la­tions with Egypt by em­brac­ing Sissi at the White House on April 3 — he pub­licly hailed the au­to­crat’s lead­er­ship as “fan­tas­tic” and of­fered the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s “strong back­ing” — that Egypt’s pos­ture changed. Last Sun­day, a court in Cairo dropped all charges against Hi­jazi and the others.

What the White House plans to cel­e­brate as vindication of its early diplo­macy comes at the end of a

week in which the ad­min­is­tra­tion has com­bated charges of for­eign pol­icy con­fu­sion. Al­though the pres­i­dent re­ceived wide praise for his de­ci­sion to pun­ish Syria for its pre­sumed chem­i­cal weapons at­tack with a bar­rage of cruise mis­siles, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been crit­i­cized for con­tra­dic­tions over pol­icy to­ward Syria and Turkey, and mis­state­ments on the U.S. re­sponse to North Korea’s weapons ac­tiv­ity.

A se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said that no quid pro quo had been of­fered for Hi­jazi’s re­lease but that there had been “as­sur­ance from the high­est lev­els [of Sissi’s gov­ern­ment] that what­ever the verdict was, Egypt would use pres­i­den­tial author­ity to send her home.” The of­fi­cial said the U.S. side in­ter­preted that to mean that a guilty verdict and sen­tenc­ing would be fol­lowed by a par­don from Sissi, but they were pleas­antly sur­prised.

The drop­ping of charges set in mo­tion the re­lease of Hi­jazi and Has­sanein from cus­tody and their jour­ney to the United States, which was per­son­ally over­seen by Trump and de­tailed Thurs­day by the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the na­tional se­cu­rity sen­si­tiv­i­ties of the case.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Dina Pow­ell, who were al­ready plan­ning to visit Egypt this week, met with Sissi on a range of top­ics. Mean­while, Trump also sent his mil­i­tary aide, Air Force Maj. Wes Spur­lock, to es­cort Hi­jazi and her fam­ily on the plane home to Wash­ing­ton.

Hi­jazi and Has­sanein re­united with the Hi­jazi fam­ily in Cairo this week, and as Mat­tis trav­eled on to Is­rael, Pow­ell, who was born in Egypt and has helped smooth re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries, stayed be­hind to ac­com­pany the group, the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

The trav­el­ers touched down at Joint Base An­drews about 10 p.m. Thurs­day. Hi­jazi and her brother, Basel, are sched­uled to visit the White House on Fri­day to meet with Trump and his daugh­ter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, who had fol­lowed Hi­jazi’s plight, the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emo­tions the past cou­ple of days,” Basel Hi­jazi said in a tele­phone in­ter­view Thurs­day from aboard the plane. “We’re cry­ing with re­lief to have them out.”

He added: “We’re very grate­ful that Pres­i­dent Trump per­son­ally en­gaged with the is­sue. Work­ing closely with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was very im­por­tant for my fam­ily at this crit­i­cal time. It let us be re­united as a fam­ily. We’re so grate­ful.”

Since Sissi came to power in a 2013 coup, his au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment has presided over a lurch­ing econ­omy, with mas­sive debt, high un­em­ploy­ment and al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion. A $12 bil­lion loan last year from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and strict aus­ter­ity mea­sures have led to slow im­prove­ments, but Egypt still needs ma­jor out­side in­vest­ment and fa­vor­able fi­nanc­ing.

Dur­ing his U.S. visit, Sissi met with the heads of the IMF and the World Bank, along with the chief ex­ec­u­tives of Lock­heed Martin and Gen­eral Elec­tric. Sissi has sought bil­lions of dol­lars in fi­nanc­ing from the U.S. Ex­portIm­port Bank for mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, Trump sug­gested that the United States could “do well with­out” the Ex-Im Bank. But last week, he re­versed him­self by nom­i­nat­ing former Repub­li­can law­mak­ers Scott Gar­rett and Spencer Bachus to va­cant po­si­tions on the bank’s board.

The se­nior Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the agree­ment for Hi­jazi’s re­lease was the prod­uct of Trump’s “dis­creet diplo­macy” — mean­ing the pres­i­dent’s ef­forts to cul­ti­vate warm re­la­tions with strong­men such as Sissi and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, in part by avoid­ing pub­lic pro­nounce­ments on hu­man rights that might alien­ate the for­eign gov­ern­ments.

Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Corker (RTenn.), who said he re­cently ad­vo­cated for Hi­jazi’s re­lease in his own talks with Sissi and was briefed on the lat­est ne­go­ti­a­tions, said Trump “han­dled it the way things like this should be han­dled.”

“The United States can some­times lead with things, and do it pub­licly, [in ways] that are of­fen­sive to peo­ple and likely not get the kind of re­sult that we’d like, whereas work­ing it qui­etly and making it a pri­or­ity, but do­ing so in a way that is not a pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment to the other party, that’s the way they worked this,” Corker said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day.

Former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, who were at times crit­i­cized for not making a more pub­lic case out of Hi­jazi’s im­pris­on­ment, ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that Sissi got noth­ing from Trump in ex­change for Hi­jazi’s free­dom.

“The ro­bust praise and sup­port the pres­i­dent has given to Sissi, which stands in some con­trast to what we did, had to have some price, and maybe this is it,” said Antony J. Blinken, who worked on the Hi­jazi case as deputy sec­re­tary of state. “At least it’s a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment in which every­one can take some sat­is­fac­tion.”

At the same time, Blinken warned, such sup­port could “have the op­po­site ef­fect of sim­ply re­in­forc­ing [Sissi’s] crack­down at home, in a way I think some­day is go­ing to re­bound against him, and prob­a­bly re­bound against us. . . . You can try to re­press your prob­lems away, but at some point, they will ex­plode.”

Dur­ing Sissi’s visit to Wash­ing­ton, Trump made no pub­lic men­tion of Hi­jazi’s im­pris­on­ment. Nor did he ap­pear to pres­sure the Egyp­tian leader on his record of hu­man rights abuses.

But the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Trump had been fol­low­ing Hi­jazi’s case.

“I want her to come home,” Trump told his top aides and dep­u­tized them to work di­rectly with the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment to se­cure her re­lease, ac­cord­ing to the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. Of­fi­cials at the State Depart­ment and at the U.S. Em­bassy in Cairo helped fa­cil­i­tate Hi­jazi’s de­par­ture from Egypt, while at­tor­ney Wade McMullen and other lead­ers from Robert F. Kennedy Hu­man Rights, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, also worked to free her.

Kerry Kennedy, the group’s pres­i­dent, said in a state­ment that her team had worked with the ad­min­is­tra­tion, and “we are deeply grate­ful to Pres­i­dent Trump for his per­sonal en­gage­ment in re­solv­ing Aya’s case.”

Sissi, a former army chief who led the coup that over­threw Egypt’s elected pres­i­dent, had been barred from the White House by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for hu­man rights abuses. Sissi’s post-coup crack­down has been par­tic­u­larly se­vere against civil so­ci­ety groups, es­pe­cially those re­ceiv­ing money from abroad. They are fre­quently de­nounced by the gov­ern­ment and pro-gov­ern­ment me­dia as try­ing to desta­bi­lize the coun­try. Thou­sands of peo­ple re­main im­pris­oned.

While Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was un­easy with the elected gov­ern­ment of Mo­hamed Morsi, whose po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion was tied to the Mus­lim Brother­hood, his ad­min­is­tra­tion re­jected Sissi’s charges of ter­ror­ism ties. Af­ter the coup, Obama withheld aid from Egypt — for decades, the sec­ond­largest re­cip­i­ent of U.S. mil­i­tary as­sis­tance, af­ter Is­rael, at more than $1 bil­lion a year.

Dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Trump ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers he felt were tough on ter­ror­ism and de­rided what he called Obama’s “weak” lead­er­ship.

This month, as Sissi smiled be­side him in the Oval Of­fice, Trump said warmly: “We agree on so many things. I just want to let ev­ery­body know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much be­hind Pres­i­dent al-Sissi.”

JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, cen­ter, seen in Cairo, is among U.S. of­fi­cials who worked for the re­lease of Aya Hi­jazi and her hus­band.

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