An Open Letter to Secretary Blinken on the Eve of His Trip to the Region

May 24, 2021

The Honorable Antony Blinken, United States Secretary of State,

We are a group of American and US-based scholars and analysts of the Middle East. We write to you today in two capacities: first, as academics who care about democracy and real stability in the region; and second, as concerned citizens who want consistent, principled U.S. foreign policy in the region, particularly with regard to Egypt.

While your current trip to the Middle East will no doubt focus on events in Israel-Palestine, Egypt will loom large in discussions. This is because, as you know well, ever since the Camp David Accords, Egypt has been a linchpin of U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine. In terms of the governance of occupied Palestinian territories, Egypt still plays a central role in maintaining the longstanding blockade of Gaza. All of this underscores the role Egypt plays in the governance of occupied Palestinian territories. As you engage with Egyptian representatives, please allow us to convey our distress about Sisi’s record on human rights.

By any standard, Egypt is now a prison state. An estimated 105,000 prisoners are currently held in Egyptian detention centers. The most common estimate is that 60,000 of these are political prisoners. Most prisoners suffer inhumane conditions, including torture, overcrowding, poor sanitation, and medical neglect. The State Department’s Annual Human Rights Report cites, “unlawful or arbitrary killings … forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the [Egyptian] government … harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention.” Civil society activists, bloggers, and journalists have been especially targeted. Human rights workers, scholarly researchers, and medical professionals highlighting the shortcomings of the government’s COVID response face terrorism charges.

For more than forty years, the US government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain a system of rule that does not serve the interests of the Egyptian people. The core of that regime throughout this period has been a small military class whose power is underwritten by American taxpayers. This was true under Hosni Mubarak and it is just as true today under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi established his power in a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of Egypt in July 2013. Presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 were marred by irregularities. In the 2018 polls, candidates who challenged Sisi were arrested; his only opponent had supported Sisi’s re-election until the day that he registered to run in opposition.

Since the July 2013 coup, Egypt has suffered a dramatic escalation of human rights violations. Nonetheless, Egypt continues to be the second largest recipient of US military aid (after Israel). Since 1978 Egypt has received over $50 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance. All military aid since 1985 has consisted of grants which do not have to be repaid. For FY 2021 Egypt is slated to receive $1.3 billion, or $3.56 million dollars a day, in foreign military financing, the same level of funding it has received since 1987.

Last year Congress passed legislation conditioning $75 million of the appropriated aid to Egypt on the release of political prisoners. These funds are not subject to a national security waiver. An additional $225 million is conditioned on other human rights improvements but may be waived. While this is a positive step, it is inadequate.

Egypt continues to demonstrate its contempt for human rights. Nonetheless, in February, only days after Egyptian security forces detained family members of human rights activist and dual US-Egyptian national Mohamed Soltan, the Biden administration announced the sale of naval surface-to-air missiles to Egypt worth $197 million. 

President Trump jokingly—alarmingly—referred to President Sisi as his “favorite dictator.” Many of us expected that the new administration would repudiate Trump’s indulgence of lawlessness and authoritarian rule. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for signs of change. It is our sincere hope that you use your visit to set a new, more sincere tone for Egyptian-American relations. After 2011, it is no longer acceptable to accept widespread repression, torture, and extra-legal detention as normal features of rule in Egypt.

We understand that recent events in Israel-Palestine may give the Sisi regime new political leverage. We acknowledge that, in exchange for the efforts of Egyptian mediators, the generals in Cairo will surely expect new levels of reward and support from Washington. As much as we appreciate the skill of Egyptian diplomats, their accomplishments cannot and should not be an excuse for the continuation of massive human rights abuses in the country. As you meet with President Sisi, please do not forget the thousands of political prisoners held in his jails, many without trial or charges, many of them victims of routine torture and abuse. 

We urge that the administration show its seriousness about addressing human rights concerns by adopting the 7 First Steps, as laid down by some of Egypt’s most prominent human rights organizations: 

1.) Free all political prisoners and those imprisoned for peaceful actions; 

2.) Stop the “endless” detentions that keep regime critics in indefinite pretrial custody; 

3.) Lift the state of emergency in force since 2017; 

4.) Stay all executions; 

5.) Halt criminal prosecutions of human rights advocates; 

6.) Withdraw the draft personal law proposed in March 2021, that would if passed cause women to lose many family rights; 

7.) Reverse the blocking of websites illegally imposed in the absence of court order to censor media.

We believe that an Egyptian state that respects the rights of its own people might be expected to play a helpful role in creating a just peace in Israel-Palestine. By the same token, an Egyptian state that routinely abuses its own citizens is no ally of the American people. We appreciate your time and attention.

Most sincerely,

Joel Beinin. Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus. Stanford University

Elliott Colla, Associate Professor, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Georgetown University

Assaf Kfoury, Professor of Computer Science. Boston University

Danny Postel, Assistant Director, Center for International and Area Studies. Northwestern University

Ted Swedenburg, Professor of Anthropology. University of Arkansas

On Behalf of The U.S. Committee to End Political Repression in Egypt

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