Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On President el-Sisi’s Visit

Mr. President, this week, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is in Washington where he is meeting with President Trump and other senior Administration officials, as well as some Members of Congress. 

President Trump has spoken glowingly of President el-Sisi, as he has of Russian President Putin and Philippine President Duterte.  “Strong leaders”, he calls them, as if that is enough to justify our wholehearted support.  Unfortunately, world history is replete with examples of strong, messianic leaders who abused their power in ways that caused immense hardship for their people, and divisiveness and conflict in their countries. 

Despite that, the White House has voiced its strong support for President el-Sisi, and for U.S. – Egyptian relations.

I have been to Egypt many times and I have voted for billions of dollars in U.S. aid for Egypt to support economic and security programs in that country.  I have recognized positive developments in Egypt when they occur, such as President el-Sisi’s decision to undertake economic reforms, including by reducing some subsidies.  Far more needs to be done, however, if Egypt’s economy is to break free of decades of state control, endemic corruption, and gross mismanagement.

I am also aware of the security threats Egypt faces in Libya and in the Sinai, although I, and others, have expressed deep concern with the flawed tactics the Egyptian government is using to combat those threats.  The U.S. has an interest in helping Egypt confront these challenges by addressing the underlying causes in a manner that is effective and consistent with international law. 

President Trump has called President el-Sisi a “fantastic guy”.  Ironically, that says a lot more about President Trump than it does about President el-Sisi.

President el-Sisi, a former general who seized power by force, has ruled with an iron fist.  He has effectively banned pubic criticism of his government since the removal of former President Morsi, enforcing what amounts to a prohibition on protests and arresting hundreds of people in connection with the ban, many preemptively.  

President el-Sisi’s government has engaged in one of the widest arrest campaigns in the country’s modern history, targeting a broad spectrum of political opponents.  Local civil society organizations estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 people are detained on political grounds, such as for protesting or calling for a change in government.  Police have accused many of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, usually without evidence that they have advocated or engaged in violence.  Many other detainees belong to other political organizations, or have no party affiliation.

A systematic crackdown on Egypt’s independent civil society has left it on the verge of collapse.  According to human rights groups, nearly every prominent Egyptian human rights defender or civil society leader is banned from leaving the country as part of a judicial investigation into the foreign funding of their organizations.  A law signed by President el-Sisi in 2014 would allow prosecutors to seek 25-year sentences for illegally receiving foreign funding.  Parliament has also proposed a new law regulating civil society organizations, which, if adopted, would effectively outlaw independent human rights work in the country.

Despite repeated requests by U.S. officials, including some Republicans and Democrats in Congress, President el-Sisi’s government has refused to release those detained for political reasons for months or years without charge, or on trumped up charges like Egyptian-American citizen Aya Hijazi. 

The media has also been targeted, with authorities threatening and jailing journalists who reported on political opposition.  Some foreign journalists have been barred from the country after writing articles critical of the government.  As of December 2016, Egypt was the third-highest jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.  This pattern of harassment and arrests is not new.  It has been happening for years and, contrary to the representations of Egyptian officials, it is getting worse.

According to Human Rights Watch, members of the security forces, particularly the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, routinely torture detainees to elicit confessions.  This torture usually occurs during periods of enforced disappearance that can last for weeks or months.  The widespread use of torture has also been reported by the State Department.  Despite hundreds of reported cases of torture and enforced disappearance, since 2013 only a handful of police officers have reportedly been punished for violating the law. 

According to information I have received, prison conditions remain deplorable, and political detainees are beaten, often deprived of contact with relatives and lawyers, and denied access to medical care.  

The government’s use of U.S. aircraft and other military equipment in its counterterrorism campaign against a local ISIS affiliate in the northern Sinai has not only resulted in indiscriminate attacks against civilians and other gross violations of human rights, it has made the terrorism situation worse.  Requests by myself, as well as State and Defense Department officials, and by independent journalists and representatives of human rights groups, for access to conflicted areas, have been denied. 

So while President Trump and other U.S. officials unabashedly praise President el-Sisi, I wonder how they reconcile their portrayal of him with his crackdown against civil society and brutal repression of dissent.  In fact, it can’t be reconciled, and it damages our own credibility as a strong defender of human rights and democratic principles.

I want to reiterate what I said in this chamber on September 27, 2016, when I spoke about Aya Hijazi, the young Egyptian-American social worker currently detained in Egypt.  Ms. Hijazi, along with her Egyptian husband and five employees of their organization “Belady”, has been accused of salacious crimes that the government has yet to corroborate with any credible evidence, yet she has been jailed since May 21, 2014.  Just last month, a decision in her case was inexplicably delayed until later this month.  It is long past time for her ordeal to end.

Mr. President, the United States and Egypt have common interests in an increasingly troubled region.  Egypt has acted to reduce the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and it has helped to broker ceasefires with Hamas.  Our support for Egypt is demonstrated by the fact that over the past 70 years, U.S. taxpayers have provided more than $70 billion in economic and military aid to Egypt.  I doubt that many Egyptians know that, as most have a decidedly unfavorable opinion of the United States.

After three decades of corrupt autocratic rule by former President Mubarak, Egypt once again has a former military officer as President who has chosen to rule by force.  It is neither justified nor is it necessary.  If, on the contrary, President el-Sisi were to demonstrate that he has a credible plan for transforming Egypt’s economy, for improving education and creating jobs, for respecting due process and other fundamental rights, and for addressing the discrimination and lack of economic opportunities that are at the root of the violence in the Sinai, the Egyptian people would support him.  They would also have a brighter future.  Instead, I fear that by relying on repression he is sowing the seeds of misery and civil unrest, which is in the interest of neither the Egyptian people nor the American people.  

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