WHEN THE Associated Press asked about accomplishments of his first 100 days, President Trump cited first of all the release of Aya Hijazi, a U.S. citizen who was unjustly imprisoned in Egypt for nearly three years. Ms. Hijazi was indeed an egregious example of an American persecuted by a nominal U.S. ally; by raising her case, Mr. Trump kept faith with his “America First” pledge. Ms. Hijazi’s return is to be celebrated. It does not, however, justify what so far has been Mr. Trump’s unqualified public embrace of the most repressive regime in Egypt’s modern history.
The White House has portrayed the prisoner release as evidence that the administration’s loud public support for Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi enables a more quiet diplomacy that gets results. But the record of recent years does not support this thesis. Egypt has a history of imprisoning Americans and then releasing them as a favor to the U.S. administration of the day — whether or not it is publicly supportive. The current ruler, Mr. Sissi, freed U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan in May 2015 after heavy lobbying by the Obama administration, which never invited the strongman to Washington. An earlier leader, Hosni Mubarak, released Egyptian American dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim under pressure from President George W. Bush, who withheld U.S. aid to force the concession.
The military-backed rulers in Cairo don’t offer these gestures because of White House red carpets. They do it to defuse criticism from Washington about the regime’s horrific human rights record without relieving the systematic repression of Egyptians.
So it is in the case of Ms. Hijazi, who was arrested along with her husband and several others in May 2014, after they founded a nongovernmental organization to help street children in Cairo. The Sissi regime, which never produced evidence of wrongdoing by Ms. Hijazi, has not let up in its broader campaign against civil society groups with connections to the United States. It holds tens of thousands of other political prisoners, including thousands of secular liberals who campaigned to make Egypt a democracy. It continues to engage in practices such as forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture — thousands of such cases were reported by human rights monitors last year alone.
Some rationalize these abuses as necessary for the Sissi regime to defeat domestic Islamists, including a branch of the Islamic State operating in the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, the regime’s harsh tactics have polarized the country and promoted terrorist recruiting. By every available measure, violent Islamists have grown stronger since Mr. Sissi seized power in a July 2013 military coup.
Mr. Trump’s friendliness toward Mr. Sissi will pay off if he can persuade the general to adopt desperately needed reforms in Egypt, such as rational counterinsurgency tactics in the Sinai, rather than mass repression, and the release from prison of secular opponents and Islamists who renounce violence. Scores of nongovernment groups like that founded by Ms. Hijazi remain under government attack. Mr. Trump was right to argue her case — but if Egypt is to get on the right track, he will need to push for more.
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