The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s completely on Congress’: Human rights activists urge U.S. lawmakers to scrutinize Sissi

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool/AP)
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Two years ago, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations, and related programs held a hearing on Egypt. The experts testifying before the panel were there to make the case that the U.S.-Egypt relationship was not what it used to be, and that U.S. assistance to and investment in Egypt should be reviewed.

One panelist argued the U.S. administration was making matters worse. “The whole world sees the spectacle” of President Trump welcoming Egyptian leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who led the 2013 military overthrow of democratically elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and was himself elected president the following year, without mentioning human rights, said Tom Malinowski, formerly President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

On Wednesday, almost two years after that hearing, Malinowski, now a congressman from New Jersey, was speaking once again about Egypt, this time at a panel on proposals to amend the Egyptian constitution that would, among other things, allow Sissi to stay in office until 2034.

“It is a statement to the young people of the country: That none of you matter, that there is only one person who can hold power, only one generation that can hold power,” Malinowski said.

“It is wrong; it is stupid, and it is generally very, very self-defeating as we’ve seen throughout history,” he said.

His argument that U.S. officials are sending the wrong message by meeting with their Egyptian counterparts and not mentioning human rights was echoed by others.

“The narrative in Egypt is: ‘Nobody cares about you anymore,’” said Khaled Abol Naga, an Egyptian actor and activist, who added that Egyptians notice when Western officials say nothing to Sissi on human rights.

Malinowski and Naga were joined by Naga’s fellow actor-activist, Amr Waked; Human Rights Watch’s Washington director, Sarah Margon; Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; and Dalia Fahmy, a professor of political science at Long Island University.

The constitutional amendments were approved last month. They then returned to a legislative committee to have the wording finalized, and will go back to lawmakers for a final vote. The amendments change the presidential term limits from four to six years, and, while the terms are technically still capped at two, the proposals also introduce a “transitional article” just for Sissi. Under the newly amended constitution, he would be eligible for two more six-year terms after his second is up in 2022. The amendments would also designate the military the “guardian and protector” of Egypt.

“We’re aware of proposed constitutional amendments under consideration by parliament which could, among other things, allow for an extension of [Sissi’s] time in office,” a State Department spokesman wrote in an email. In response to a request for comment on the activists’ call for U.S. officials to be more vocal on human rights in Egypt, the spokesman wrote, “The United States emphasizes the importance of transparency, dialogue, and democratic processes and institutions around the world in providing stability, prosperity, and a voice for citizens. "

According to Mohamed Soltan, who organized the event, ahead of which tens of participants from a variety of states and countries met with members of Congress, getting the Trump administration to change wasn’t the point.

“There’s less focus on human rights and democracy. That puts the responsibility more on Congress to step up,” Soltan told The Washington Post. He was a political prisoner in Egypt for nearly two years.

Soltan, a human rights advocate and development director of the Freedom Initiative, a human rights organization based in Washington focused on political prisoners and human rights violations in the Middle East, brought the conversation back to the topic of the panel two years ago — U.S. aid to Egypt.

The United States, Soltan said, gives $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt. “We have leverage that we’re simply choosing not to use to better the human rights situation and stop an implosion in Egypt, one of the most populated countries in the Arab world.”

“The aid the we give is the leverage that we have,” Soltan said. “It’s completely on Congress.”