The pardon might seem like a commendable and incremental improvement to the dismal human rights situation in Egypt. But there is more to the story.
Even as Sissi was issuing pardons with one hand, he was arresting a new wave of political prisoners with the other. While continued arrests no longer seem to strike a chord with the outside world, there is reason for alarm.
When Sissi began arresting political opponents early in his reign, the international community remained largely silent, accepting the official premise that he was only targeting terrorists. Having just won a second term, Sissi no longer sees the need to maintain this pretext. He has launched a new wave of arrests, beginning two months ago during the time of the national election. Egyptian security forces have detained Amal Fathy, a former actress married to a well-known human rights lawyer who was working on the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher who was kidnapped in Cairo and then tortured to death. Secular activists such as Shadi Al-Ghazali Harb and Haitham Mohamaden have also been detained. These people have no reported connection with terrorist groups.
Others detained recently include prominent blogger Wael Abbas; satirist Shady-Abu Zaid; and Hazem Abdel-Azim, a former Sissi supporter who was in charge of the 2014 presidential youth campaign.
Sissi often uses a depressing sleight of hand when it comes to detentions: As one prisoner is released, another is arrested. For example, Amir Nagy, an American citizen and teacher, was quietly arrested on May 13 at Hurghada airport, according to his lawyer — just three days before Etiwy’s release.
I can personally testify to Sissi’s brutality and how his regime lies to keep innocent people in prison. When I was living in Egypt, and after the coup that brought Sissi to power, I made a decision to avoid politics and criticism of the regime. I instead established a nonprofit that helped street children. Even then, the regime viewed silent activism as a threat. I was arrested in 2014 and detained, along with other members of my organization, for three years. The regime portrayed me, a dual citizen, as an American spy who was sent to ruin Egypt, and charged me with human trafficking. My case received widespread Egyptian and American media attention, which led President Trump to talk to Sissi last year. Soon after, I was acquitted by the Egyptian judiciary.
While the Trump administration deserves praise for using its good relationship with the Egyptian president to call for the release of people such as myself and Etiwy, I fear that Sissi is using the appearance of acquiescence to boost his legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
Trump told me when I met him after my release that he was pleased that his private diplomacy and good relations with Sissi paid off with my release. While I am indeed grateful, I would never wish to pay for my liberty with the imprisonment of other people, as is happening now.
The refusal to condemn the military dictatorship and its actions has alarming repercussions for Egypt. Private diplomacy has been successful in gaining the release of some well-known activists, but the campaign of repression has intensified nonetheless. I earnestly wish that we could address the root cause of the problem — namely, military rule — rather than playing the game of exchanging one hostage for another.