The death this week of Mustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American imprisoned in Egypt after an unfair trial, underscores the Trump administration’s failed approach on human rights in Egypt.
Police arrested Kassem in August 2013, during protests against the military takeover in Cairo. He was held for more than five years, until his conviction and sentencing in September 2018 in an unfair trial alongside more than 700 others. According to his family, Kassem, a diabetic with a heart condition, was repeatedly refused appropriate medical care.
His death was not for lack of US attention. Two years ago, Vice President Mike Pence raised Kassem’s case directly with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and said al-Sisi assured him he would give it “very serious attention.” In December 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised Kassem with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Ultimately, the US failed to secure Kassem’s release. Perhaps President al-Sisi found it hard to take the US’ pleas seriously considering the Trump administration’s praise and $1.3 billion annually in military aid. President Trump hosted al-Sisi at the White House in April and met with him on the sidelines of the G7 summit in August. He called al-Sisi “my favorite dictator” and praised the “fantastic job” he is doing in Egypt.
Other American citizens are still in prison in Egypt. Reem Desouky, an art teacher from Pennsylvania, was arrested in July 2019 over unspecified Facebook posts, along with her 13-year-old son, who was later released. Khaled Hassan, a limousine driver from New York, was forcibly disappeared in January 2018 for five months, during which time he alleges he was tortured and raped. Human Rights Watch has documented abusive conditions, denial of medical care, and arbitrary and extended detention in prisons which hold tens of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners. More than 300 of them began a hunger strike this week in protest of these terrible conditions.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have spoken out on Kassem’s death. Their anger was apparent in a press conference Wednesday morning cosponsored by Human Rights Watch. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) noted that Kassem’s death comes in the context of an administration that has abdicated its role on human rights around the world. Representative Peter King (R-NY) called for sanctions to be imposed on Egypt and the officials responsible for Kassem’s death.
Legislators should channel their anger into legislation that conditions US military aid to Egypt on human rights, and deny the Trump administration’s ability to waive those conditions.