Al-Sisi’s aggression amounts to Trump’s in the last days

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime arrested, this week, three senior members of one of the country’s most prominent and few remaining human rights groups, days before Donald Trump’s expected leave from power.

Arresting the members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) came just days after the organisation hosted more than a dozen Western ambassadors and diplomats at its Cairo office. Observers say that the regime considered it a move that it could get away with. On November 15, plainclothes security forces arrested Mohamed Basheer, EIPR’s administrative manager, in Cairo. Three days later, Karim Ennara, EIPR’s criminal justice director, was arrested at a seaside restaurant in the Sinai resort town of Dahab.

Both men’s names were added to a long-standing investigation into terrorism-related charges that already includes several other political detainees. At the time of Basheer’s arrest, EIPR’s executive director, Gasser Abdel Razek, said it was a direct response to the organisation’s meeting with Western diplomats, and he expressed shock that “security forces would feel threatened by a meeting with ambassadors.” A day later, Abdel Razek was arrested, too. All of them are in Tora Prison, a notorious jail near Cairo, adding to the estimated 60,000 political detainees in Egypt held on flimsy or trumped-up charges. The three have faced hours of questioning, including interrogations about their meeting with Western diplomats from countries considered allies of Egypt. The Swiss Embassy said the meeting was a briefing on the work of civil society in Egypt.

Amnesty International has called the crackdown on the organisation a “smear campaign” and says the charges are baseless. Rights advocates say the United States and other Western states have for too long looked away from human rights abuses by friendly authoritarians across the Middle East, a trend that has only intensified under Trump. At last year’s G-7 meeting in France, US President Donald Trump called out loud enough for several people to hear, “Where’s my favourite dictator?” He was looking for al-Sisi, who led a military coup against the country’s democratically elected leader in 2013.

Since the EIPR arrests, there have been vocal condemnations and calls for their release from some prominent members of the US Congress, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Sanders called the arrests an “outrage,” adding, “The incoming administration must make it clear to Egypt and all countries that, once again, the United States will support democracy, not dictatorship.” However, so far, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top administration officials have been silent on the arrests. Pompeo is currently travelling in the Middle East. Increasing arrest campaigns seem insane, especially just days after Egypt hired the US lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck on a $65,000 a month retainer.

Al-Sisi’s regime hired the US lobbying firm after Biden’s victory, indicating that Cairo may be worried that its impunity is coming to an end when Trump leaves. While the tone from the incoming Biden administration will almost surely be different from Trump’s, it’s not yet clear that Washington has meaningful levers to drive real change in Egypt.

Politicians expect that Biden will take office with a host of thorny domestic issues, including Trump’s effort to overturn the election and a raging coronavirus pandemic that will keep a lot of foreign policy issues, let alone Egypt, well short of the top priority. But even if Biden wants to withdraw al-Sisi’s “blank cheques,” it’s not clear how he will do it. Human rights defenders say that al-Sisi wants to send a clear message to the activists to reduce their hopes after Biden’s victory. Others confirm that there is another reason, that is al-Sisi wants to increase detainees, to hold more cards in his hand in any negotiation with Biden’s administration, and that he will keep releasing them one by one to gain new “blank cheques.”