American-Egyptian detainees suffer in Egypt’s prisons without support

A list of 22 people who hold American citizenship, permanent residency in the USA, or journalists working for American agencies, are still in the Egyptian regime’s prisons.

An American journalist revealed this number, during sharp criticism of the spokesperson for her country’s foreign affairs, Ned Price, in a press conference two days ago, expressing surprise that Washington considers that this does not contradict with the military grant to Cairo and arms sales.

The prominent public figures, such as Ola, 55, the daughter of the famous Islamic preacher Yousuf al-Qaradawi, and her husband, Hussam Khalaf, 58, are not the only ones who have been forgotten by the US President Joe Biden’s administration.

A member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, the Associated Press correspondent Mustafa al-Khatib who has been imprisoned since October 2019, is one of the most forgotten. No one raised demands for his release, even during the Journalists Syndicate elections that are currently taking place. Last week, the Egyptian authorities released three journalists in a move that observers considered government support for the current head, Diaa Rashwan, to push him to a second term at the syndicate’s head. None of these three was al-Khatib. He was arrested in connection with the news he published about the departure of eight students from the British University of Edinburgh who ended their time in Egypt mid-term.

The students were on scholarships as part of a university exchange with the American University in Cairo, but they left after the Egyptian security services arrested two British students. Al-Khatib was forcibly disappeared, for a day, in one of the headquarters of the National Security in Egypt, before he appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, pending Case No. 488 of 2019. Despite a US agency representative being present at al-Khatib’s first hearing session with the prosecution and his request for his release, the prosecution ordered his imprisonment pending the case.

Since then, his pretrial detention has been renewed without investigation. The charges against him included “spreading false news” and “joining a terrorist group with knowledge of its objectives,” without naming it. After taking over the Biden administration, opposition political circles in Egypt expressed their hope to change the US position on the Egyptian suppression of opponents, which had thrown tens of thousands of them in prison over the past years. Egyptian opponents wish for changes (even partial) in Egypt’s political and human rights violations, based on the US administration’s keenness on freedoms, democracy, and human rights.

The Egyptian opposition does not want to repeat last year’s crisis, when Mustafa Kassem, an American of Egyptian descent, died after having been in prison since 2013. Kassem, an Egyptian citizen who emigrated to the United States where he obtained American citizenship, was arrested in 2013 during a visit to Cairo at a time when the Egyptian authorities were cracking down on demonstrators against the regime. Kassem denied his participation in any protests, asserting that he was “buying goods in a shopping centre when he was arrested.” Kassem was sentenced in 2018, along with hundreds of defendants, in a mass trial, to 15 years in prison for the crime of trying to overthrow the regime, but he died in January 2020 inside prison. Although Washington repeatedly raised his case with Cairo, the administration of former US President Donald Trump was less interested in him.

The same administration lobbied in April 2017 to secure the release of the Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy and her husband, Mohamed Hassanein but it did not work for Kassem. Aya’s release and her husband came according to a court ruling in Cairo, acquitting her after spending nearly three years in prison on charges including “managing and establishing a group for human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.” They were released only two weeks after the first meeting between Trump and the President of the Egyptian regime, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the White House. A spokesman for Trump confirmed that the latter had discussed this issue with al-Sisi.

The Biden administration has forgotten al-Khatib and the other list of 22 people, despite the fact that the US State Department does not miss an opportunity but confirms that Washington will not grant a “blank cheque,” whether to its allies or its competitors. It also repeatedly points out that it feels “deeply concerned about Egypt’s human rights situation and the suppression of freedom of expression and civil society,” noting that the US administration “will raise these issues implicitly and publicly with Egyptian officials.” However, it always affirms that Egypt “is an important and pioneering country in the Middle East’s peace process.”

At the end of last February, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken discussed with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry the importance of strategic cooperation, specifically in combating terrorism and regional peace initiatives. He also raised his country’s concerns about human rights in Egypt. A US State Department statement said at the time that Blinken discussed human rights concerns in Egypt by phone, stressing that this issue would be central to relations between Washington and Cairo. He also expressed Washington’s concerns about the possibility of Egypt buying Russian Sukhoi-35 fighters.

Biden described al-Sisi during his presidential campaign, as “Trump’s favourite dictator” and said that he would not give him any more blank cheques. He denounced the arrest, exile, and torture of Egyptian activists. Only a month had passed after Biden took power when his administration agreed to sell military equipment to the Egyptian army, whose value was close to $200 million. But the US State Department emphasised at the same time that the deal had nothing to do with concern about the human rights situation.