Egyptian human rights activists in the US accuse President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government of targeting loved ones to pressure them into silence, prompting President Joe Biden to put pressure on Egypt so that it respects its human rights record.
Sherif Mansour, the Washington, DC-based Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Egyptian security forces had attacked three of his relatives’ homes in Egypt since August 20, arresting several people.
All but one were released; his cousin Reda has been accused of belonging to a “terrorist organization” and is still in detention awaiting trial.
“For the first 45 days, we didn’t even know where he was,” said Mansour, who was also accused in absentia of terrorism in the case of his cousin, as were his father and brother. “While in detention, Reda was often deprived of food and medicine. It was only now that they allowed him a monthly visit and he was able to send letters to his family.
Reda’s personal testimony sent to his family revealed that he had been asked about Mansour’s family in the United States and whether he had communicated with them on social media or through other means.
“I deliberately did not communicate with my family in Egypt so as not to cause them trouble. This has been consistent and persistent over the past six months, ”Mansour told Al Jazeera.
Thousands of inmates
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment prior to publication.
In a telephone interview last week with MBC Masr television, el-Sisi responded to the criticism, telling the Egyptian people to beware of a lingering “foreign conspiracy” on domestic tension. “Anyone who targets me or the Egyptian regime is in fact targeting the Egyptian people. This is what the Egyptians should know, ”he said.
But a coalition of rights groups that includes Human Rights Watch and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said relatives of Egyptian critics abroad were increasingly subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention. extended without trial or charge.
Ten years after A revolution Led to the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak, an estimated 60,000 Egyptians remain in detention after a crackdown on political opponents, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as human rights activists and Democrats.
Many dissidents had to flee and live in exile. Journalists who sought to uncover government rights violations were routinely target.
For the Biden administration to be successful in influencing the rights situation in Egypt, it will need to put its money where it is
“We have seen this growing pattern of intimidation and fear tactics against the families of opponents, including home raids, persecutions, arrests and travel bans,” said Amr Magdi, researcher on the Middle East and North Africa to Human Rights Watch.
“In the worst case scenarios, we have seen the arrests of family members. They are arrested and the persecutors approve all charges against them without any evidence, and they are held in pretrial detention without end.
Since August, at least four US-based Egyptian activists have claimed their families have been targeted, including the family of US Egyptian rights activist Mohamed Soltan.
Three cousins of Soltan were recently detained in a home raid and questioned about his work as director of the Freedom Initiative, an independent human rights group based in Washington, DC, HRW. reported.
Soltan was a political prisoner in Egypt for two years after being arrested during a brutal and deadly repression during a sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa Square in 2013. He filed a complaint against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi in June before a US court, accusing him of orchestrating his torture in prison.
Amid reports, rights groups are pushing the newly elected Biden administration to rethink Washington’s relationship with Cairo – the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid since the Egyptian government signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979.
The United States has provided Egypt with $ 50 billion in military aid and $ 30 billion in economic aid since 1978, according to the US State Department. The figures, while bilateral trade between the two countries totaled $ 8.6 billion in 2019.
Shortly after his election, then President Donald Trump welcomed el-Sisi at the White House, where he congratulated him on “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”. The Trump administration has refrained from publicly criticizing Egypt for its human rights record, and observers hope the Biden administration will do more.
“The administration needs to make it clear to the Egyptian government what steps it can take to address its rights concerns,” said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident researcher at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank based in Washington. DC.
“But if they talk very broadly about respect for human rights and democracy and don’t really have very specific demands, it will be more difficult to get some sort of result.”
Biden also faces pressure from his Democratic Party. US Congressmen Don Beyer and Tom Malinowski, who recently formed the Egyptian Human Rights Group, said bilateral US-Egyptian relations should prioritize respect for human rights and accountability .
“US interests have not been served by a policy of unconditional support for the Egyptian military, while minimizing human rights violations by the military-led government, corruption and mistreatment of citizens Americans, ”said Malinowski mentionned in a statement last month.
“The Egyptian human rights group will reflect and help shape the growing consensus in Congress that we must rebalance our relationship with this important country.”
In a July tweet, then-presidential candidate Biden criticized el-Sisi for arresting Egyptian activists and targeting their families, calling it “unacceptable.” “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” Biden wrote.
The human rights situation in Egypt was also on the agenda during a February 23 call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
“The fact that it was raised during the secretary’s first call with his Egyptian counterpart is testament to the priority we attach to this issue,” State Department spokesman Ned Price later told reporters at the meeting. ‘a press briefing. “This is where we want to see an improvement.
Mohamed Amashah has finally returned home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable. No more blank checks for Trump’s “favorite dictator”. https://t.co/RtZkbGh6ik
– Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 12, 2020
But the day reports emerged that Soltan’s cousins had been arrested, the Biden administration announced a sale weapons worth $ 200 million in Egypt.
Price defended the move as a “routine replenishment of defensive weapons,” but HRW’s Magdi said it was “a step in the wrong direction … [that] shows the Egyptian government mixed messages ”.
“Coherence in the defense of human rights is vital,” Magdi told Al Jazeera.
Kaldas questioned whether the sale demonstrates just how far the Biden administration is prepared to go in pairing its security priorities with its concerns about rights and democracy in Egypt. “For the Biden administration to be successful in influencing the rights situation in Egypt, it will have to put its money where it is,” he said.
“There will have to be substantial carrots and he will have to be prepared to withdraw the things the Egyptian government wants and these are not just weapons and not just money – it is also a diplomatic weight,” it is recognition.