Egypt prisoner release doesn't justify US support for Sisi
During a trip to Washington last month, Abbas Kamel, the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate and often referred to as Egypt's "spy chief", made an astonishing claim to US congress.
Kamel said that, in 2015, when the US was negotiating the release of the Egyptian-American human rights activist Mohamed Soltan, US diplomats promised that Soltan's release was conditional on him spending the rest of his life in a US prison. Politico, who broke the story, even obtained a document confirming Kamel's account of this deal.
We know that the US did not keep its side of the bargain, as Soltan lives freely in the US where he continues to fight for the lives of Egyptian prisoners. As further reported by Politico, the noise coming from sources "familiar with the issue" on the Washington side said the document was signed simply to secure Soltan's release without it ever being fulfilled.
"US diplomats promised that Soltan's release was conditional on him spending the rest of his life in a US prison"
But what's more interesting is that Kamel was bold enough to complain about the breaking of the deal - to protest at Soltan's freedom in America - to the US Congress. That this came especially at a time when there is increasing scrutiny from US lawmakers and the state department on the vast human rights abuses committed by the Sisi regime within the context of US aid to the country, makes it all the more strange.
Political prisoners in Egypt
Coinciding with this incident was the announcement last Sunday of the release of human rights activist Mahienour El-Massry, as well as five other similarly inclined and high-profile activists, including the Nobel Prize-nominated Esraa Abdel Fattah, from prison. El-Massry, who had been imprisoned since 2019, was allegedly released after increased pressure from the Biden administration.
While the release of any political prisoner in Egypt is cause for celebration, it's worth raising a note of scepticism about the timing of the release and the profiles of the former detainees.
All the detainees released last week are high profile among Egypt's liberal elites, and many have a global profile that most of the 60,000 other political prisoners locked away in Egypt simply do not. Again, this is not to be held against them, but rather to note the stark contrast with other political prisoners - including the 12 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are facing execution.
Egypt released human rights defender Mahienour El-Massry on Sunday as US pressure on Cairo over crackdowns on human rights activism mounts https://t.co/xSpBQ6RucE— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 20, 2021
The same awareness should be brought to the 49 documented cases of prisoners dying in custody or from injuries and abuses sustained while in prison in 2020 alone, or to the continued and constant brutal persecution of LGBT Egyptians who continue to face savage beatings, sexual violence and other forms of torture by security forces. Whether it's war crimes in the Sinai, mass executions or disappearances, Sisi's regime is defined by mass state terror and the savagery that is necessary to the maintenance of a totalitarian system.
On the same day the prisoners were released, Abdel Nasser Salama, the former editor of Egyptian daily Al Ahram, was arrested by the regime on charges of "supporting a terrorist organisation" after he wrote a Facebook post criticising Sisi's handling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Just a week earlier, the Germany-based historian Alia Mossallem was detained and separated from her family upon arrival at Cairo airport.
The fact that the US could exert pressure to secure the release of El-Massry and the five other high-profile prisoners while ignoring all of these issues, including those who might be saved from execution perhaps gives a glimpse into the superficial nature of Biden's "human rights concerns" when it comes to Egypt.
The Biden administration finds itself in a position where it faces increasing internal scrutiny on its financial underwriting of Sisi's blatant and bold tyranny. However, Biden has rowed back significantly on the strong rhetoric he employed against Sisi when he was running against Trump.
US cooperation with Egypt
Earlier this year, Biden rubber-stamped the selling of Raytheon missiles to Sisi at a time when the Egyptian regime was kidnapping the family members of American-based dissidents. Similarly, it was the Biden administration that actively intervened to grant diplomatic immunity to one of Sisi's former chief torturers and murderers when he faced a lawsuit from one of his victims, namely the US citizen Mohamed Soltan. If anything, during Biden's rule, the Sisi regime has grown bolder in its actions against dissidents both within and outside of Egypt.
So it would not be surprising if the release of these prisoners was part of a mutually beneficial compromise between Sisi and Biden.
"The Biden administration must not be allowed to use the release of a few prisoners as a humanitarian fig leaf"
Biden can advertise the US role in the release of the prisoners as proof of his human rights agenda in Egypt, while Sisi can ensure the Egyptian Armed Forces continue to get their regular $1.3bn of US tax dollars.
Biden had already earmarked the $1.3bn in Egyptian military aid in his budget for 2022, so it's clear that the question is not one of the US attempting to fundamentally alter the system of rule in Egypt that necessitates mass terror and human rights violations.
The question is rather one of how Biden can get around the issue of human rights abuses to preserve the US-Egyptian special relationship. As with the behaviour of Kamel, this is not a regime that seems to be in fear of losing its support from the US.
The Biden administration must not be allowed to use the release of a few prisoners as a humanitarian fig leaf to justify the US continuing to financially support one of the most anti-human regimes on earth.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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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.