The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Trump should ask a brutal dictator as he welcomes him to the White House

Aya Hijazi sits inside a holding cell as she faces trial at a courthouse in Cairo on March 23. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Human rights advocates in both Cairo and Washington are bracing themselves for an ugly scene Monday: the love-in at the White House between President Trump and Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the most repressive dictator in Egypt's modern history.

The Obama administration did not allow Sissi to set foot in Washington after he staged a bloody coup against a democratically elected government in 2013. His regime is holding, according to Egyptian and U.S. monitors, between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners, including thousands of secular liberal democrats. His security forces were responsible for 1,400 extrajudicial killings in 2016 alone, and 912 disappearances between August 2015 and August 2016, according to Moataz El Fegiery of Front Line Defenders. Eighty-five civil society activists have been banned from leaving the country and dozens of journalists are being held without trial, according to Bahey el-din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

None of it matters to Trump, who has called Sissi "a fantastic guy" because of his supposed support for the war against the Islamic State — never mind that Egypt has been losing the battle against the jihadists in its own Sinai Peninsula.

That leaves the human rights defenders clinging to one slender hope: that Trump will, at least, apply his "America First" principles to the case of Aya Hijazi, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned in Cairo for more than 1,000 days on crudely trumped-up charges. Her real crime, in the view of Sissi and his security forces, is that she is an American who tried to set up a nongovernmental organization in Cairo. The regime believes that U.S. NGOs are part of a secret plot to destroy Egypt — yes, really — and so has singled them out for repression even while pocketing $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid.

That's where Trump's instincts ought to kick in. "If your priority is the defense of American security interests abroad above all, it is highly important that you bring this case up," says Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "At a minimum an unjustly detained American ought to be on the agenda."

Hijazi's case is striking because there is no ambiguity in it. A former resident of Falls Church and graduate of George Mason University, she married an Egyptian national and joined with him in founding a nonprofit for the not-so-subversive cause of helping Cairo's street children. On May 1, 2014, security forces burst into the tiny organization's headquarters without a warrant and arrested everyone they found, including the children who were there. Later Hijazi, her husband and several others were charged with sexually abusing the children and enlisting them in anti-government protests.

No evidence was ever produced to back up these sensational charges, which were splashed in the state-controlled press as more evidence of American plotting against Egypt. Instead, Hijazi's trial was postponed seven times over two years while she languished in a Cairo prison, in violation of Egypt's own law on pretrial detention. "It was a case that helped a lot of people make their political points," says Hijazi's brother, Basel. "She was young, she was American, she was establishing a new NGO, therefore she was an enemy. Then they forgot about it and she was left to rot in prison."

When a trial was finally held last year, the police who conducted the raid claimed they could not remember why they carried it out. The children who were allegedly abused recanted their accounts, and one testified that he had been tortured into a false claim. Yet the judge refused to dismiss the case, or even grant bail. At the last hearing, on March 23, a host of Egyptian media appeared, apparently anticipating that Hijazi would be acquitted on the eve of Sissi's Washington visit. Instead, the judge abruptly postponed a verdict until April 16.

Might Sissi be carrying Hijazi's fate in his pocket as a chip to offer Trump, perhaps while pleading for a renewal of that $1.3 billion in aid? Basel Hijazi can only hope so. "It's an easy win for all the governments involved," he says. That certainly would have been true had Hillary Clinton been elected president; she raised the Hijazi case with Sissi when she met with him during the fall campaign.

Sissi, however, can’t do the right thing if Trump doesn’t bother to ask for it — and the new president has so far offered no hint of interest in the Hijazi case, or in Sissi’s relentless and vicious campaign against U.S. influence in Egypt more generally. Which is strange: You’d think a country that swallows billions in U.S. aid while blatantly persecuting Americans would raise the ire of a president who supposedly puts America first.

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