US Congress and rights defenders hold public briefing on Egypt's brutal repression and human rights abuses

In International Advocacy Program, Round Tables and Public Lectures by CIHRS

On the sidelines of President Sisi's visit to the White House

US Congress and rights defenders hold public briefing on Egypt's brutal repression and human rights abuses

Together with eleven partner NGOs, CIHRS co-sponsored a public briefing in the U.S. Senate timed to coincide with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to the White House to meet with President Trump, on April 9, 2019.

Six members of Congress spoke at the event, including Representative Ilhan Omar and senators Chris Van Hollen and Patrick Leahy.  Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga also spoke, deploring the current situation in Egypt:“Today, Egyptians are behind bars—most of those young Egyptians from Tahrir square, that we were all so proud of and that most of the world was so proud of, are behind bars in prisons or behind bars of fear. This is a regime that is trying to make us all be afraid.”

Abol Naga made a broad appeal “as a fellow human being aching for fellow human beings at this time and age being forcibly disappeared, incarcerated for a blog, or a tweet…..who are dying right now… who are tortured right now, those teenagers under the age of 18 having death sentences without proper trials, right now.”

The members of Congress sent a strong message of concern about the widespread violations of human rights in Sisi’s Egypt, which as Neil Hicks of CIHRS observed, constitutes a “shameful record of brutality, intolerance, and repression unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.”

The legislators’ support for the Egyptian people’s just demands for dignity, freedom and social justice stood in stark contrast to the uncritical support that Sisi received at the White House.

The legislators criticized the proposed constitutional amendments, which would extend Sisi’s term in office until 2034, as a power grab, and noted that the concentration of power and removal of checks and balances were both undemocratic and likely to make Egypt more unstable and a less reliable partner for the United States.

Legislators spoke out against many aspects of Sisi’s rule: the tens of thousands of political prisoners; the crackdown on independent civil society organizations and the free press;  and persistent discrimination against religious and other minorities, despite Sisi’s claims to the contrary.

In particular, many members of Congress were concerned that the brutality in Egypt’s prisons was providing fertile ground for terrorist groups, like ISIS, to recruit “a whole new generation extremists,” as Senator Leahy warned. Several legislators noted an irony explicitly stated by Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First:  Egypt, although a security partner of the US in fighting terrorism, is “in fact willingly and knowingly creating the very conditions in which terrorism thrives.”

Members of Congress objected to the misuse of U.S. weapons to carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Sinai, and elsewhere.  April Corley, an American citizen, spoke at the briefing about her trauma from the Egyptian military’s lethal attack on a group of a tourists in September 2015, which left her seriously injured and 12 dead. Legislators observed how, despite receiving 1.3 billion in American aid, Egypt has yet to provide any compensation to Corley for the permanent injuries she sustained in the attack. Stephen McInerney, director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, emphasized how the attack was not an “aberration” but a “representation of the grotesque incompetence and brutality” of the Egyptian state.

Congress has the power to control funding that goes to Egypt in the form of U.S. foreign assistance.  In response to calls from CIHRS and other civil society groups, members representing key committees, including appropriations, foreign affairs and armed services, pledged to craft legislation that would:

  • Cut the amount of military assistance in the aid package.
  • Attach more specific human rights conditions to a greater proportion of military assistance, thereby increasing pressure on the Egyptian government to reform its human rights practices;
  • Make it more difficult for the administration to sidestep the conditions by use of a waiver.

The process of writing the appropriations legislation for FY 2020 is now underway. Congress will have the opportunity to implement the promises made at the hearing that the Sisi government should not be given a free pass to violate human rights.

A powerful bi-partisan group of 17 senators also wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo urging the administration to make clear the U.S. government’s opposition to further democratic backsliding and human rights violations, further indicating the momentum in Congress for halting Egypt’s slide into dictatorship.

Remarks of Neil Hicks,
Senior Advocacy Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
“Al-Sisi in Washington”
April 9, 2019,
Russell Senate Office Building, Washington D.C

  • I speak on behalf of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies an independent human rights organization with a regional focus that was forced to move its main office away from Egypt in 2014, the year when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the presidency, because the level of persecution and threat from the state against the organization made it impossible to carry on as we had since 1993.
  • The leaders of CIHRS became subjects of criminal investigation under Case 173 of 2011, the so-called foreign funding case, a wide-ranging prosecution that has suffocated the human rights movement in Egypt
  • My colleagues were faced with death threats, personal asset freezes and the assets of the organizations were also threatened.
  • The director of our Cairo office has been under a travel ban since May 2016 and faces criminal charges that could result in his imprisonment for life.
  • Our colleagues in the Egyptian human rights movement have faced worse with activists targeted for enforced disappearance and serving long prison sentences on trumped up charges after unfair trials.
  • A government that takes such severe measures against peaceful activists who promote universal values and the rule of law must have something to hide.
  • In Sisi’s case it is a shameful record of brutality, intolerance and repression unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.
  • By welcoming President Sisi to the White House today President Trump is giving America’s blessing to a government that has killed thousands of its political opponents, imprisoned tens of thousands, practiced extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances in the manner of Latin American dictatorships of an earlier era and mounted a sustained assault on Egypt’s institutions: its judiciary, the media, its legislature and its electoral processes. The proposed constitutional amendments are only a further blow against the already weakened checks on Sisi’s absolute power.
  • Sisi’s visit today illuminates a disturbing global trend. By uncritically embracing autocrats and dictators the Trump administration is giving brutal leaders like President Sisi a free pass to increase their repression and further their own interests.
  • Sisi is taking advantage of America’s failure to stand for justice, human rights and freedom: to make himself effectively president for life; to undermine judicial independence and to increase the already oversized powers of the Egyptian military.
  • Whose interests does this serve? Not the Egyptian people, and not the United States government, which should have learned by now that alliances with Middle Eastern dictators rarely work out well.
  • Inside Egypt it is not possible to hold the government accountable for its violations given that the media and judiciary are under state control, the United Nations and international human rights organizations have very limited access and Egyptian NGOs are persecuted. Therefore exercising external pressure for accountability human rights crimes is badly needed.
  • While the administration is abdicating its responsibilities to speak out for human values it is incumbent on Congress to fill the void. It is therefore very welcome to see members of Congress from both parties expressing concerns about human rights violations in Sisi’s Egypt.
  • We urge them to use their voices and their powers to let the Egyptian people know that the United States has not abandoned them in their struggle for dignity, rights and freedom, and to put the Sisi regime on notice that its persistent disregard of basic human rights will have consequences in those areas, such as military assistance, where Congress wields influence.

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