The Honorable Antony Blinken
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520

 

Dear Secretary Blinken:

As members of the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts formed in 2010, we write to you about the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue taking place in Washington, DC, on November 8–9, 2021. We note that human rights are on the agenda, and we respectfully request that you and your team speak forthrightly about Egypt’s appalling human rights record and press the Egyptian delegation on the urgent need for meaningful improvements.  

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, with tens of thousands of political prisoners. His military-backed government denies citizens fundamental rights, suppresses peaceful political participation, and harshly cracks down on even mild criticism, including through the systematic use of state violence. The security agencies routinely carry out extrajudicial killings against perceived opponents while enjoying impunity for atrocities. Death sentences and hefty prison sentences are handed down in trials lacking the most basic elements of due process. Political detainees suffer enforced disappearance, torture, deliberate medical neglect, indefinite pretrial detention periods, and death in custody. The security agencies keep media and civil society under tight control, blocking hundreds of websites without legal basis (including that of U.S. government-funded Al Hurra); detaining human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, scholars, researchers, and activists; and repressing civic organizations

American citizens and legal permanent residents are not exempt from harsh treatment in al-Sisi’s Egypt. They have been subject to death in custody, arrest and imprisonment on political grounds, and transnational repression. The regime has even detained U.S. citizens’ family members as a form of pressure. This is unacceptable behavior from a country that the Biden-Harris administration calls a “vital partner.”

Al-Sisi recently made the welcome, though insufficient, decision to end the state of emergency that had been in place since April 2017 and that had given authorities additional powers to crush freedom of assembly, movement, and press. Yet days later, the rubber-stamp parliament amended legislation to entrench the state’s repressive powers, rendering al-Sisi’s lifting of the emergency law a charade. The government has also announced a “National Strategy for Human Rights” to great fanfare, but Egyptian activists point out that the “cosmetic” strategy is unlikely to meaningfully improve the country’s rights situation.

At the Dialogue, we respectfully call on the administration to press Egypt to enact substantive human rights reforms. Egypt has many human rights obligations as a State party to multiple human rights treaties. Those obligations, emphasized in submissions by NGOs and many governments during Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review process before the UN Human Rights Council last year, should form the basis of a comprehensive dialogue on Egypt’s human rights practices. Those obligations also overlap with urgent priorities identified by Egyptian rights organizations. They include:

  • freeing political prisoners,
  • halting “endless” detentions,
  • staying all executions,
  • stopping criminal prosecutions of human rights activists,
  • withdrawing the personal status law,
  • reversing the blocking of websites,
  • ending the use of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, 
  • ceasing repression of marginalized communities including LGBTQI+ people, women, and religious minorities; and
  • eliminating widespread torture within Egyptian prisons.

We hope that you will make clear that the Egyptian government’s failure to improve its human rights record, including its unwillingness to fully implement these measures, will have negative consequences for its relationship with the United States. 

In addition, we urge the administration to reinforce the human rights conditions that it has placed on the release of $130 million of military aid for Cairo. Based on regrettable past U.S. actions, al-Sisi likely expects the United States to eventually drop its conditions and provide the assistance. The administration should make plain that it has no intention of reversing its decision and that it expects Egypt to meet these benchmarks—and that failure to do so will result in the forfeiture of the suspended assistance.

Furthermore, the administration should express clear opposition to any exportation of authoritarianism by the al-Sisi regime. Al-Sisi’s backing of Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed’s July 25 power grab and reports that his regime gave a green light to Sudanese army chief Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan ahead of his October 25 military coup are deeply concerning. 

Finally, we urge the United States not to include undue praise for al-Sisi’s atrocious human rights record in any official statements or remarks coming out of the Dialogue.

If the Biden-Harris administration fails to send a strong message on human rights at the Strategic Dialogue, its commitment to “center” human rights in U.S. foreign policy will, unfortunately, ring hollow when it comes to Egypt—and give al-Sisi cover to continue his brutal crackdown.

 

Respectfully,*

Amy Hawthorne (chair)
Project on Middle East Democracy

Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca
Freedom House

Thomas Carothers
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Larry Diamond
Stanford University

Michele Dunne
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Eric Edelman
Johns Hopkins University 

Reuel Marc Gerecht
Foundation for Defense of Democracies 

Neil Hicks
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Thomas Hill
Former staffer, House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Elisa Massimino
Georgetown University

Stephen McInerney
Project on Middle East Democracy

Michael Posner
New York University 

Mai El-Sadany
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy 

Kenneth Wollack
National Endowment for Democracy

 

*  The Working Group on Egypt is a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts formed in 2010 to advocate for more principled U.S. policies toward Egypt. Members participate in the Working Group in their individual capacity; institutional affiliations are provided for the purpose of identification only.

 

Photo credit: Ron Przysucha/State Department/Flickr