Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste and Mohammed Fahmy stand behind bars in a court in Cairo in this June 1, 2014, file photo. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

The United Nations General Assembly tends to inspire grand gestures by dictators. This year’s drama prize must go to Vladi­mir Putin, who dispatched troops and planes to Syria to set up his Monday address to the assembly. Others, however, are seeking attention. So let’s save some oxygen for Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the former general who now rules Egypt.

Sissi attempted to lay the groundwork for his U.N. speech on Friday — and Egypt’s ascension to a seat on the Security Council — by pardoning 100 political prisoners, including two Al Jazeera journalists convicted on spectacularly trumped-up charges. His hope was to be seen as a strong-but-fair statesman, willing to correct mistakes even as he ruthlessly battles the growing Islamic jihadist movement in his country.

In fact, attention is way overdue on the subject of Egypt’s political prisoners. But the story is not Sissi’s “token gesture,” as Amnesty International called it. It is the extraordinary fact that a regime for which the Obama administration has proposed $1.5 billion in fresh military aid has become, with the arguable exception of North Korea, the largest jailer of peaceful political opponents in the world.

No one knows for sure how many nonviolent detainees are being held in Egypt’s prisons, but the regime itself has conceded that the number is in the tens of thousands. According to the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, an opposition coalition, there are more than 40,000, including more than 1,000 who have been sentenced to death. The democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, deposed by Sissi in a July 2013 coup, is on the death list, along with scores of his top political aides.

At least 18 journalists are still imprisoned in Egypt, along with hundreds of secular liberal activists, including the intellectual authors and leaders of the Jan. 25, 2011, march that touched off the popular revolution against former strongman Hosni Mubarak.

A couple of those liberals were released last week, including Sanaa Seif, a 21-year-old activist jailed last year for protesting a law banning all protests. But Seif’s older brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egypt’s most famous blogger-activist, is still imprisoned on the same charge. So are Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, leaders of the April 6th youth movement, which led the fight to make Egypt a liberal democracy after 2011.

Conditions for those prisoners are “harsh,” as the State Department put it in its latest human rights report on Egypt. Torture is routine; authorities acknowledged that more than 90 prisoners died in the first 16 months after the coup. Notwithstanding Sissi’s gesture, the repression is worsening. Security forces have begun summarily executing suspects they arrest — including 13 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were seized in Cairo on July 1, then tortured and shot to death, according to family members.

Senior Obama administration officials are well aware of all this. Among other things, they’ve recently heard the harrowing firsthand account of Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old American whom Sissi freed in June after 21 months of imprisonment. An Ohio State University alum who worked as a translator and unofficial spokesman at an opposition sit-in after the coup, Soltan somehow survived losing more than half his weight in a prolonged hunger strike, along with torture that included sleep deprivation, repeated beatings and prolonged isolation in a tiny cell.

As his hunger strike gained international attention, Soltan told me last week, senior officials at Cairo’s notorious Tora prison tried to push him to commit suicide. Once they dumped a dying man in his cell; when he died hours later, Soltan was berated for not preventing his death.

After he was finally packed onto a plane to the United States, Soltan found a new way to fight back. He moved to Falls Church and began a concerted campaign of lobbying on behalf of the political prisoners. He’s had excellent access: Secretary of State John F. Kerry met him, as did U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and Soltan believes a private letter he wrote reached President Obama.

Soltan’s message to the administration is as simple as his story is affecting. First: “Pressure works. I am living proof that when the administration pushes hard enough it can make a difference.” Conversely, “when there are no consequences for repression, [the regime] takes it as a wink-wink, non-nod” consent.

Second, Soltan says, freeing Egypt’s prisoners and creating space for peaceful opposition to Sissi ought to be a U.S. priority. A whole generation of young people is being radicalized in Egypt’s prisons, he says, “and the only thing they agree on is hatred for the United States,” which is blamed for enabling Sissi.

Obama may feel compelled to answer Putin at the United Nations this week. “But something has to be said about Egypt,” says Soltan. Let’s hope the president read his letter.

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