President Trump is to meet with Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House today, even as el-Sisi faces widespread criticism for human rights abuses in Egypt. Human rights organizations say Sisi and his security forces have arrested tens of thousands of Egyptians and have committed torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The Trump administration has indicated it will not bring up the human rights abuses during today’s meeting. For more, we go to Cairo, Egypt, to speak with with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Donald Trump is scheduled to welcome Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House today. Sisi, a former military general, is the first Egyptian president to visit the White House since Egypt’s 2011 revolution. He rose to power in 2013 through a military coup, overthrowing Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The Trump administration has already indicated it will not publicly address Egypt’s grave human rights record during today’s meeting. Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch said, quote, “Inviting al-Sisi for an official visit to Washington as tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail and when torture is again the order of the day is a strange way to build a [stable] strategic relationship.”
AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has called Sisi a “fantastic guy,” after meeting him on the sidelines at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. And el-Sisi was reportedly the first world leader to congratulate Trump on winning the presidency in November in a phone call. El-Sisi’s meeting with Trump comes shortly after en Egyptian court freed Hosni Mubarak from prison, six years after the former dictator led a crackdown on protests that killed hundreds of people opposed to his 30-year rule. The 88-year-old Mubarak left a military hospital in southern Cairo, returned to his home in the city’s northern suburbs.
Well, for more, we go to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!’s correspondent in Cairo and Nation Institute fellow.
Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the meeting today in the White House between Egyptian President Sisi and President Trump?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think, first, it’s important to note, you know, Sisi has presided over the worst wave of repression in Egypt’s modern history. As you mentioned, tens of thousands of opposition supporters have been imprisoned. Many people have gone into exile. Torture, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearances are rampant. Journalists have been prosecuted and sentenced. Draconian laws, limiting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, are ruthlessly enforced. And the airwaves have been purged of all dissident voices. And there’s an unprecedented crackdown on civil society that’s underway.
And just to give you a sense — you know, a lot of people think that Egypt has stabilized somewhat. The Nadeem Center, which is a prominent human rights organization that’s been here for over 20 years, its doors were forced closed in February by security forces. They just put out a report documenting government abuses just in the month of March alone. This is just March alone. They found 177 killings, 37 cases of torture, 13 deaths in detention, 66 cases of medical negligence in prison and 94 cases of enforced disappearance. So, these are numbers that are hard to comprehend, but it really gives you a sense of the repressive climate that Egyptians are living in today.
With regard to Sisi’s meeting with Trump today, I think the significance is really more symbolic than anything else. You know, Sisi is the first Arab leader to be received at the White House by President Trump. He was never invited under President Obama. And, you know, this is, of course, like the crown jewel of diplomacy, to be at the White House. They only met once, on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly in 2014. There’s certainly a difference in rhetoric and tone with the Trump administration. Both leaders have expressed mutual admiration for each other and adopted a rhetoric that’s devoid of any kind of criticism whatsoever. And also, yes, the White House has made clear that it won’t make human rights a public point of contention, and they will discuss these matters behind closed doors.
The Obama administration did at times offer muted criticism for human rights abuses or highlighted specific cases; however, I think it’s very important to remember that while Sisi was presiding over this massive wave of repression, Obama did very little to alter the relationship between the United States and Egypt. Egypt, of course, is the second-biggest recipient of military aid in the world from the United States, second only to Israel. After Morsi was ousted in 2013, after the massacre of nearly a thousand of his supporters in August of that year, Obama did partially suspend the delivery of some weapons systems — F-16 warplanes, M1A1 Abrams tanks, Harpoon missiles. But he restored that aid in [ 2015 ]. One thing he did cancel was something called cash flow financing, which basically allows Egypt to buy military equipment on credit. Only Egypt and Israel have that, have that privilege. And that has been canceled.
And that restoration of full military aid in 2015 comes despite official government acknowledgment of human rights abuses in Egypt. If you look at the congressionally mandated State Department report on human rights in 2015 or 2016, you’ll see that they acknowledge security forces engaged in unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention. They use all of these words. But the State Department has been regularly issuing what’s called a national security waiver, that allows Congress to override those concerns and continue the funding. And also, lastly, a report by the Government Accountability Office last May found that the US government is not sufficiently vetting the sale of weapons to Egypt, so including weapons such as rubber-coated bullets and tear gas, which have been used and have killed peaceful protesters in Egypt. The State Department has not rejected a single case. The Embassy vets thousands of individuals in the Egyptian security forces, and the State Department has not rejected a single one of them since 2013. These are the same police forces that have been accused of all these — of all these abuses.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif?
So, this Government Accountability report — go ahead.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sharif, I wanted to ask you: In terms of the supposed cooperation between the Trump administration and Sisi in fighting the war on terror, what degree — to what degree is there a terrorist movement in Egypt, or is it really a resistance movement, an armed resistance movement, against the Egyptian dictatorship? Because we’re hearing reports of constant battles, day to day, between the Egyptian military and militants in the country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, I mean, Sisi’s reason for being, really, he launched himself on the war on terror, and we’ve really only seen more war and more terror in Egypt. There is a sustained insurgency in northern Sinai, with militants regularly attacking police and army positions. We’ve seen scores of civilians killed, hundreds of police and soldiers killed, as well as militants. The police use torture and curfews and airstrikes and military artillery attacks in northern Sinai. They have wiped out pretty much the town of Rafah to prevent, they said, smuggling of weapons from Gaza, where it borders. Despite all of that, these attacks continue. And, in fact, an ISIS affiliate, that has pledged allegiance to ISIS, drove dozens of Christian families from their homes last month in Arish, in northern Sinai. They were forced to flee by a targeted campaign.
And the attacks are not limited just to Sinai. We’ve seen multiple attacks in the mainland of Egypt targeting police and security forces, police stations and so forth, but also targeting, for example, in December, a bomb ripped through Egypt’s main Coptic cathedral, killing over 25 people. We’ve seen attacks on tourist sites, with the ISIS affiliate claiming responsibility for the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015 that claimed — that killed all 224 people on board. So, you know, this is — and this increased militancy has been used as the justification for these harsh repressive measures. And this is kind of the same age-old authoritarian logic that just continues in a never-ending cycle.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to ask you about the case of Aya Hijazi, the Egyptian-American citizen who’s been detained by Egypt for over 1,000 days. Can you tell us who she is?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Aya Hijazi is a 30-year-old Egyptian American who grew up in Falls Church and graduated from George Mason University. She returned to Egypt following the 2011 revolution. She got married to a man named Mohamed Hassanein. And with their wedding money, they founded something called the Belady Foundation, where they work to educate and rehabilitate street children in Cairo.
In May of 2014, amidst a broader crackdown on civil society, police forces raided the group without a judicial warrant. They arrested Aya and her husband and several others, and charged them with a raft of very serious charges, including human trafficking, sexual exploitation of children, inciting children to participate in street protests — charges that carry a maximum of a life sentence. They’ve been in prison even since. Human Rights Watch has called the case a “travesty of justice.” They’ve been in prison almost three years now, and that violates Egypt’s own penal code, where detainees are only allowed to be held for two years under pretrial and provisional detention rules. There’s been very frequent prolonged postponements of the trial. They have not been allowed to meet with their lawyers privately. And I was at a session just a couple weeks ago, where the verdict was supposed to be heard. Aya was in the defendant’s cage in the courtroom. Her husband came in. They embraced very tightly. They only see each other in the defendant’s cage, weeks or months apart. It was a very moving scene. And then the judge postponed the verdict inexplicably, as many postponements have occurred in this case, to April 16.
So we’ll have to wait and see what happens. It’s hard to know, but I very much doubt that Aya Hijazi will be a topic of conversation today between Trump and Sisi, and she’ll be forgotten by the leaders of both the countries she’s a citizen of.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Sharif, before we go, the whole issue of not raising human rights, as the Trump administration has said they will not do in this meeting, and the significance of Sisi for Trump, that he was the first person to call and accept his call to congratulate Trump on his election?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, like I said, I think the main difference in the relationship will be one of tone and rhetoric. I mean, they see in each other kindred spirits, that they both have a populist slant that brought them to power. They use authoritarian language and authoritarian tactics to enforce their policies. They both have very dark views of the Muslim Brotherhood and look to annihilate any and all opposition. And so, you know, but I think it also begs the question of how much the actual US relationship will change, because we have to realize that Obama, before him, echoed decades of US policy towards Egypt, which prioritizes perceived national security interests over human rights and rule of law.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we have to leave it there. I thank you so much. But we’re going to do Part 2 of our conversation and post it online. Sharif Kouddous is Democracy Now!’s correspondent in Cairo, Nation Institute fellow.
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