U.S. President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi walk the colonnade at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The arrest in Egypt of American-Egyptian dual citizen Amir Nagy, who founded an academy for children’s development in Nasr City, should be a wake-up call to the Trump administration on the questionable effectiveness of its quiet, behind-the-scenes advocacy on human rights in Egypt.

Authorities held Nagy incommunicado for two days before charging him with belonging to a banned political group, said Aya Hijazi, the founder of Belady Foundation, created to help Egypt’s street children, and a former political prisoner herself.

Even good news in Egypt, such as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s May pardon of over 300 prisoners – including Ahmed Etiwy, a US citizen rounded up in a 2013 protest – is coupled with repression. That same month, al-Sisi’s security agencies arrested activists Wael Abbas, Hazem Abd al-Azim, and Amal Fathy on charges that seem to be solely based on their social media posts and peaceful activism.

US President Donald Trump has made clear he is not interested in publicly discussing human rights with al-Sisi, favoring instead a quiet diplomatic approach. Publicly, Trump has called al-Sisi a “fantastic guy” and read-outs from their early phone calls and al-Sisi’s visit to Washington in April 2017 focused on rebuilding the partnership and security and trade concerns. Yet behind the scenes, Trump urged al-Sisi to release Egyptian-American Aya Hijazi from prison and cautioned al-Sisi against signing a draconian law that would criminalize the work of many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

True, the Egyptian government did release Hijazi. But the NGO bill was signed into law, in breach of al-Sisi’s assurances to Trump.

For now, the bill remains frozen. That coincides with a US State Department decision, citing the NGO law, to withhold some of Egypt’s aid pending progress on democracy and human rights.

However, since the aid reduction, the Trump administration has issued little public response to Egypt’s worsening situation. This crackdown, aimed at silencing Egypt’s critical voices, begs a more proactive approach from the US, especially when Egyptian Americans are caught up in the process.

Private diplomacy can work, but smart politicians know when to change their strategy. It’s time for the Trump administration to reassess its Egypt policy. If they won’t take the initiative, it’s up to Congress to step up to the plate. A prime time to do that is during this morning’s debate over the Fiscal Year 2019 Appropriations Bill, when the Senate Appropriations Committee decides which programs around the world – and in Egypt – to fund.