The Washington Post

What Trump should ask Sissi

- Twit­ter:@jack­sondiehl JACK­SON DIEHL Crime · U.S. News · Society · Middle East News · Discrimination · Politics · Human Rights · Civil Society · Donald Trump · Cairo · Washington · White House · Fatah · Egypt · Barack Obama · U.S. government · United States of America · Total Nonstop Action Wrestling programs · United States Armed Forces · Human Rights Watch · Falls Church · George Mason University · George Mason · Mason · Basel · Hillary Clinton · Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies · Sinai Peninsula

Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates in both Cairo and Wash­ing­ton are brac­ing them­selves for an ugly scene Mon­day: the love-in at the White House be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi, the most re­pres­sive dic­ta­tor in Egypt’s mod­ern his­tory.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion did not al­low Sissi to set foot in Wash­ing­ton after he staged a bloody coup against a demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment in 2013. His regime is hold­ing, ac­cord­ing to Egyp­tian and U.S. mon­i­tors, be­tween 40,000 and 60,000 political pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing thou­sands of sec­u­lar lib­eral democrats. His security forces were re­spon­si­ble for 1,400 ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings in 2016 alone, and 912 dis­ap­pear­ances be­tween Au­gust 2015 and Au­gust 2016, ac­cord­ing to Moataz El Fegiery of Front Line De­fend­ers. Eighty-five civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists have been banned from leav­ing the coun­try and dozens of jour­nal­ists are be­ing held with­out trial, ac­cord­ing to Ba­hey el-din Has­san of the Cairo In­sti­tute for Hu­man Rights Stud­ies.

None of it mat­ters to Trump, who has called Sissi “a fan­tas­tic guy” be­cause of his sup­posed sup­port for the war against the Is­lamic State — never mind that Egypt has been los­ing the bat­tle against the ji­hadists in its own Si­nai Penin­sula.

That leaves the hu­man rights de­fend­ers cling­ing to one slen­der hope: that Trump will, at least, ap­ply his “Amer­ica First” prin­ci­ples to the case of Aya Hi­jazi, a 30-year-old U.S. cit­i­zen who has been im­pris­oned in Cairo for more than 1,000 days on crudely trumped-up charges. Her real crime, in the view of Sissi and his security forces, is that she is an Amer­i­can who tried to set up a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion in Cairo. The regime be­lieves that U.S. NGOs are part of a secret plot to de­stroy Egypt — yes, re­ally — and so has sin­gled them out for re­pres­sion even while pock­et­ing $1.3 bil­lion in an­nual U.S. mil­i­tary aid.

That’s where Trump’s in­stincts ought to kick in. “If your pri­or­ity is the de­fense of Amer­i­can security in­ter­ests abroad above all, it is highly im­por­tant that you bring this case up,” says Sarah Mar­gon, the Wash­ing­ton di­rec­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch. “At a min­i­mum an un­justly de­tained Amer­i­can ought to be on the agenda.”

Hi­jazi’s case is strik­ing be­cause there is no am­bi­gu­ity in it. A for­mer res­i­dent of Falls Church and grad­u­ate of Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, she mar­ried an Egyp­tian na­tional and joined with him in found­ing a non­profit for the not-so-sub­ver­sive cause of help­ing Cairo’s street chil­dren. On May 1, 2014, security forces burst into the tiny or­ga­ni­za­tion’s head­quar­ters with­out a war­rant and ar­rested everyone they found, in­clud­ing the chil­dren who were there. Later Hi­jazi, her hus­band and sev­eral oth­ers were charged with sex­u­ally abus­ing the chil­dren and en­list­ing them in anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

No ev­i­dence was ever pro­duced to back up these sen­sa­tional charges, which were splashed in the state­con­trolled press as more ev­i­dence of Amer­i­can plot­ting against Egypt. In­stead, Hi­jazi’s trial was post­poned seven times over two years while she lan­guished in a Cairo prison, in vi­o­la­tion of Egypt’s own law on pre­trial de­ten­tion. “It was a case that helped a lot of peo­ple make their political points,” says Hi­jazi’s brother, Basel. “She was young, she was Amer­i­can, she was es­tab­lish­ing a new NGO, there­fore she was an en­emy. Then they for­got about it and she was left to rot in prison.”

When a trial was fi­nally held last year, the po­lice who con­ducted the raid claimed they could not re­mem­ber why they car­ried it out. The chil­dren who were al­legedly abused re­canted their ac­counts, and one tes­ti­fied that he had been tor­tured into a false claim. Yet the judge re­fused to dis­miss the case, or even grant bail. At the last hear­ing, on March 23, a host of Egyp­tian me­dia ap­peared, ap­par­ently an­tic­i­pat­ing that Hi­jazi would be ac­quit­ted on the eve of Sissi’s Wash­ing­ton visit. In­stead, the judge abruptly post­poned a ver­dict un­til April 16.

Might Sissi be car­ry­ing Hi­jazi’s fate in his pocket as a chip to of­fer Trump, per­haps while plead­ing for a re­newal of that $1.3 bil­lion in aid? Basel Hi­jazi can only hope so. “It’s an easy win for all the gov­ern­ments in­volved,” he says. That cer­tainly would have been true had Hil­lary Clin­ton been elected pres­i­dent; she raised the Hi­jazi case with Sissi when she met with him dur­ing the fall cam­paign.

Sissi, how­ever, can’t do the right thing if Trump doesn’t bother to ask for it — and the new pres­i­dent has so far of­fered no hint of in­ter­est in the Hi­jazi case, or in Sissi’s re­lent­less and vi­cious cam­paign against U.S. in­flu­ence in Egypt more gen­er­ally. Which is strange: You’d think a coun­try that swal­lows bil­lions in U.S. aid while bla­tantly per­se­cut­ing Amer­i­cans would raise the ire of a pres­i­dent who sup­pos­edly puts Amer­ica first.

 ?? MO­HAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS ?? U.S. cit­i­zen Aya Hi­jazi sits in­side a hold­ing cell at a court­house in Cairo on March 23.
MO­HAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS U.S. cit­i­zen Aya Hi­jazi sits in­side a hold­ing cell at a court­house in Cairo on March 23.

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