When I first met Mustafa in Tora prison, I could not help but wonder how someone like him could end up in such a place. Mustafa instantly struck me as a soft-spoken, gentle soul, with a small frame and a big smile. He told me jokingly, “I’m too old for troublemaking, unlike you.” He said he was arrested for being a bystander during the dispersal of a sit-in, and that his only crime was having his U.S. passport on him when he was arrested, subjecting him to the whims of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s regime.
During our time together, we compared notes on the conditions in various prisons and police stations, contrasting our experiences with torture methods and hazing parties used by the officers and guards. He told me stories about his family, his love for New York and his passion for entrepreneurship.
It’s no secret that Egypt under Sissi has become a black hole for human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law. Since Sissi began his unprecedented and heavy-handed crackdown on dissent in 2013, thousands of Egyptians have lost their lives in extrajudicial killings, and tens of thousands have been unjustly imprisoned and charged with trumped-up political charges — including activists, journalists and U.S. citizens. Today, an estimated 60,000 political prisoners live under inhumane and brutal conditions; 677 have been reported dead due to medical negligence, including the country’s ousted president.
Mustafa was no different. He was tried alongside more than 700 co-defendants and charged with protesting the government in a sham mass trial. He was prosecuted based on a preposterous, archaic protest law used by Sissi to suffocate civil society and dissent. In September 2018, highly politicized courts handed down harsh sentences to hundreds of defendants, and Mustafa was sentenced to 15 years in maximum security prison. He protested the sentence with an open-ended hunger strike.
The tragedy of Mustafa’s death will ripple widely and deeply throughout the lives of his friends and family. Those of us fortunate enough to know and love him will never forget his strength as he persevered despite his poor health. In addition to defeating cancer, Mustafa also suffered from diabetes, heart disease and hypothyroidism, and ultimately succumbed to his illnesses in prison. In handwritten notes smuggled to President Trump and Vice President Pence via Mustafa’s congressman, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), he pled: “I am literally dying.” In another note, he wrote: “I want my children to know that I fought tooth and nail for my freedom. I want them to know America is great because our government will fight tooth and nail for its citizens.“
At times, it is hard for me to tell which is worse: living in constant fear of guards ransacking your cell at all hours of the night as a prisoner, or getting the phone calls about a friend or relative’s death in prison after you have regained your freedom. Those of us who have been imprisoned abroad are still held hostage to trauma as a result of repression we have faced and continue to endure.
But perhaps one of the most devastating things about Mustafa’s death was the failure of the U.S. government to secure his release. Despite the United States subsidizing Egypt’s military with $1.4 billion in U.S. aid annually, and the close ties between the two countries — Trump has even referred to Sissi as his “favorite dictator,” a phrase that I used as far back as 2017 — both public and private calls for Mustafa’s release went largely ignored. How could a U.S. citizen die in an Egyptian prison when top U.S. officials championed his cause? This is an important question that the Trump administration must answer.
When the United States fails to effectively intervene on behalf of Americans unjustly detained overseas, it sends a message to everyone left behind in prison cells around the world that their lives do not matter in political calculus. Every imprisoned hunger striker is as desperate for freedom as Mustafa was when he died — or as I was when I was on the brink of death multiple times. They deserve better than to languish in horrific prisons for daring to aspire for a better future.
Mustafa’s death also speaks to the level of impunity in which authoritarians operate today — and the complicity of the Trump administration to such injustices. This tragedy is a pronounced stain on Trump’s much-hyped record of bringing Americans home. The U.S. government had leverage it has actively avoided using with Sissi, essentially shielding him and his ruthless regime from accountability.
That must change. The United States should immediately use that leverage to demand the release of those unjustly detained, including Americans, and demand that the International Committee of the Red Cross be granted access and oversight of Egyptian prisons. We need to do better.