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US, Egypt Mull Human Rights Dialogue Amid Scrutiny of Egypt's Record of Repression

Hamas police officer walks in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Abbas Kamel, unseen, in Gaza City, May 31, 2021.

The United States says it plans to engage in a "constructive" human rights dialogue with Egypt as rights groups and activists draw attention to the record of Egypt's human rights abuses.

Sixty-three human rights groups and international organizations called on Egypt Tuesday to release political detainees and stop the suppression of independent organizations and those who dissent peacefully.

“President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt should immediately end a crackdown on freedom of association, independent groups, and peaceful dissent,” said Human Rights Watch and other groups in a statement.

The latest call follows a recent report by Washington-based rights group The Freedom Initiative which found that “Egypt’s widespread and systematic campaign of arrest, imprisonment, and abuse reaches Americans on their soil.”

At least 11 U.S. persons, including American citizens, legal permanent residents, or resident visa holders, were wrongfully detained in Egypt during 2020. Five remain in prison and at least three are banned from travel, according to the report.

Research by The Freedom Initiative also documented more than a dozen cases of American citizens whose immediate family members were held in detention during 2020, in a pattern of Egyptian authorities’ reprisals against critics who are living in the United States.

It comes amid concern over the uncertain condition of jailed American citizen Khaled Hassan, who is expected to be released soon.

Hassan, an Egyptian-American limousine driver, has been detained in Egypt since January 2018. He was accused of joining a terrorist group — an allegation deemed as not credible — and Human Rights Watch says he has been tortured and raped in custody.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is seated during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace, May 26, 2021, in Cairo, Egypt.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is seated during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace, May 26, 2021, in Cairo, Egypt.

Last Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. and Egypt have agreed to engage in a constructive dialogue on human rights issues. The top U.S. diplomat met with Sissi on May 26, two days after President Joe Biden spoke with the Egyptian president.

Some analysts say a human rights dialogue between the U.S. and Egypt is unlikely to yield real improvements in rights conditions on the ground in the country.

“If the U.S. works with other governments in a concerted way — for example, U.S. allies in Europe who are major trading and security partners of Egypt — to exert pressure, Sissi might hold back a bit on repression and give Egyptians more room to breathe. But there is certainly a danger that the U.S. will appear overly grateful for token steps, which to Egyptians would signal a lack of seriousness,” said Michele​ Dunne, who is director of the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Blinken pressed for the release of wrongfully detained Americans during his meeting last week with Sissi. Senior U.S. officials said there was an hour of discussion on human rights issues.

“With regard to Americans who are detained, first let me say that we remain deeply saddened by the needless death in custody of Mustafa Kassem,” Blinken told VOA during a press conference at Amman on May 26.

Kassem died of medical neglect in the Egyptian prison on January 13, 2020.

“I certainly raised this [the release of wrongfully detained Americans] in my meeting today, and we’ll continue to do so until Americans are reunited with their families,” the top U.S. diplomat pledged.

Washington sees Cairo as a partner in the global war on terror and an ally in the region.

But Middle East affairs expert Dunne said Egypt, once seen as a promising peace partner, “has fallen into a brutal and corrupt form of military rule” and should not be the top recipient of U.S. assistance.

“The fact that the U.S. has continued to deliver $1.3 billion annually in security assistance can only be seen as a vote in favor of that sort of regime, which is a sad state of affairs,” Dunne told VOA.

Egyptian satirist and video blogger Shady H. AbuZaid was released from prison last Tuesday, according to a post on his Facebook account.

AbuZaid was first arrested in May 2018 on charges of joining an illegal group and spreading false news. He was released briefly and detained again in 2020.

His release was seen as positive but not enough to change the direction of Egyptian authorities’ escalating reprisals against dissents.

“The release of Shady AbuZaid is welcome, but it’s hard to comprehend three years of his life being stolen for upsetting authorities. Sadly, tens of thousands of prisoners remain unjustly detained by the Sissi government for their beliefs, speech, or political affiliations. This trend is only worsening, and the Biden administration must demonstrate that there will be real consequences if it continues,” said Todd Ruffner, who is the advocacy director of The Freedom Initiative.

The State Department, in its 2020 annual report on Human Rights, listed significant human rights abuses in Egypt that include unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary detention, politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country, as well as serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet.

In 2013, Sissi led the military’s removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president in a coup and has positioned himself as undisputed leader, crushing opposition despite criticism by human rights groups.

Egyptian authorities argue the definition of human rights is more about improving the quality of life for a majority of people rather than political space or political tolerance.