November 23, 2021
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
cc: Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Yael Lempert
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Christopher Le Mon
Dear Secretary Blinken,
Our organizations write to you in response to the disappointing U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue held on November 8-9 in Washington, DC. In the days leading up to the dialogue, the State Department both publicly and privately committed to elevate human rights and accountability for abuses as a topline priority with Egyptian authorities. By all appearances, the Biden administration has failed that commitment.
The Joint Statement released after the dialogue mentions human rights in passing, certainly in far less depth than the numerous “defense cooperation” commitments agreed upon with the Egyptian government. In fact, the statement fails to mention any specific human rights concerns or agreements.
The Biden administration also “welcomed Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy, and national plans to advance human rights in the country in cooperation with civil society.” This “strategy,” launched by President Abdel al-Sisi in September, is not a meaningful commitment to addressing the human rights crisis in Egypt. It fails to acknowledge the Egyptian government’s wielding of draconian legislation to criminalize freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the violations committed by security forces with absolute impunity. The strategy also ignores Egyptian authorities’ ongoing abuse of vague counter-terrorism laws to stifle and punish critics and civil society, as well as the widespread use of extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and systematic discrimination against women, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ Egyptians, migrants, and asylum seekers. It also fails to hold security forces accountable for the killing of over 900 protestors in the 2013 Rabaa massacre.
The claim that al-Sisi’s government intends to meaningfully cooperate with civil society and implement genuine reforms is belied by the ongoing crackdown on human rights groups. Instead, authorities broadly and unjustly continue to arbitrarily detain, target, and punish rights defenders, civil society workers, journalists, and opposition politicians over their lawful criticism of Egyptian authorities and Egypt’s human rights record. The Biden administration knows their names: Ibrahim Ezz el-Din, Patrick George Zaki, Haytham Mohamdeen, Ezzat Ghoniem, Hoda Abdelmoniem, Mohamed Baker, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Zyad el-Elaimy, Hossam Moanis, Hisham Fouad, Abdel Nasser Salama, and countless more. In these and many other cases, authorities have tried and imprisoned critics on spurious charges of “spreading false news” in blatant sham trials.
At the time of writing, prominent human rights defender and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahghat has been awaiting his verdict next week on spurious charges stemming from his human rights activism. Egyptian courts also convicted Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, in two separate cases in absentia, sentencing him on fabricated charges to a total of 18 years of imprisonment for exercising his human rights. Additionally, criminal investigations under Case 173 are still targeting at least 15 rights defenders and civil society workers, and even those no longer under investigation in the case still face arbitrary travel bans and asset freezes imposed by Egyptian authorities.
While the Strategic Dialogue was held in Washington, thousands in Egypt remain arbitrarily imprisoned. This includes rights defenders, journalists, and opposition leaders targeted by abusive terrorism-related charges, in many cases subjected by authorities to torture, ill-treatment, and denial of adequate medical care. At least 83 executions have been recorded so far in 2021, an alarming rise for the world’s third worst executioner in 2020. Especially concerning is that at least 36 men remain at risk of execution following unappealable convictions by emergency courts in grossly unfair trials rampant with violations and claims of “confessions” extracted under torture. Calls and recommendations by UN bodies and member states, along with international and Egyptian rights groups, have been largely ignored by Egyptian authorities who have instead given a façade of “reform” via the release of a limited number of detainees–some arbitrarily held for years–without dropping the threat of further arrest and prosecution.
Despite President al-Sisi’s lifting of Egypt’s four years-long nation-wide state of emergency, Egypt’s parliament quickly passed other amendments to further entrench the president’s exceptional powers and the unjust jurisdiction of military courts over civilians, and dozens of dissidents continue to face sham trials in “emergency courts.” Broadly, Egyptian authorities have transformed Egypt into an “open-air prison for critics,” increasingly using extreme measures to destroy rights defenders’ lives, all with the green light of billions in U.S. security aid. This repression extends beyond Egypt’s borders, with authorities carrying out reprisals against families of Egyptian dissidents living abroad. The Biden administration knows well the case of Mohamed Soltan, a U.S-based rights defender, and his father Salah Soltan–held incommunicado in Egypt in apparent reprisal for Mohamed’s activism.
U.S. law prohibits the continuation of arms transfers to any government determined to have carried out such a pattern of harassment against individuals in the United States. The Foreign Assistance Act also clearly bars the United States from providing security assistance to grave rights abusers such as the Egyptian government, let alone when credible evidence confirms use of U.S.-provided arms in said abuses. There are no exceptions in these laws that support the administration’s convoluted justifications.
Yet, with this Strategic Dialogue, the administration made no public acknowledgement or indication of the need to reevaluate and condition U.S. security assistance to Egypt on the basis of human rights–which the U.S. should do until al-Sisi’s government takes tangible measures to end systemic abuses and improve human rights conditions. As the U.S. begins its membership term on the UN Human Rights Council in January 2022, it should also push for the establishment of a UN human rights monitoring mechanism in Egypt. The Biden administration should take such steps to promote meaningful accountability for the systemic rights violations carried out by the Egyptian government with total impunity.
The Biden administration’s lack of robust action in response to Egypt’s brazen human rights abuses renders hollow its commitment to “protecting and supporting human rights defenders,” and it is time for this administration to exercise real political will and stand up to the Egyptian government on human rights.
Amnesty International USA
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Committee for Justice
Committee to Protect Journalists
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Egyptian Human Rights Forum
The Freedom Initiative
Human Rights Watch
Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
Sinai Foundation For Human Rights
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State on Flickr