On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the U.S. election, President-elect Donald Trump reportedly received his first congratulations from a head of state. On the other end of the phone was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – a military general who effectively took control of Egypt in 2013 in a coup and formally became president in 2014.
Al-Sisi was eager to press the reset button on a then-rocky Egypt-U.S. relationship that had been strained by the al-Sisi government’s repressive approach to governing. And now, three years later, al-Sisi is about to visit Washington in the hopes that President Trump will provide political cover during a critical period – as al-Sisi tries to push through constitutional amendments set to drastically expand military control over civilian institutions, including the judiciary and the presidency.
Against this backdrop, al-Sisi will visit the White House Tuesday to meet with President Trump and discuss shared priorities, regional developments and conflicts, and “Egypt’s longstanding role as a lynchpin of regional stability.” There is likely to be no discussion of human rights, and certainly none publicly. President Trump is an enthusiastic supporter of al-Sisi. The Trump administration rarely mentions human rights concerns with Egypt in public and has sustained a significant level of military aid to Egypt, despite broad cuts to the foreign aid budget, of $1.3 billion annually.
The administration appears to have made a conscious choice to remove human rights concerns from bilateral relationships writ large, contending that private engagement is a more effective tool than calling out repressive governments publicly. But the facts, especially when it comes to Egypt, suggest otherwise.
Al-Sisi’s government has deployed an unrelenting campaign of repression, poorly disguised as an effort to achieve “stability,” to crack down on independent voices, arresting more than 60,000 people, including American citizens, by a Human Rights Watch estimate. Many of these detainees face torture and arbitrary detention, often languishing for years in jail before being charged. Egypt also wages a brutal counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai Peninsula.
The timing of al-Sisi’s visit is calculated. By the end of this month, parliament is likely to vote on al-Sisi’s proposed constitutional amendments. Indeed, al-Sisi’s first visit to Washington, in April 2017, came shortly before parliament passed a draconian law that effectively criminalized non-governmental organizations. Once again, Trump is happy to provide the photo of a smiling handshake and an assertion of the importance of Egypt as an ally and stabilizing force in the region, ignoring its ever-continuing repression.
The absence of any administration engagement on human rights – and the near complete support for the status quo – means Congress has an essential course correction to make. It is lawmakers who should double down to ensure that when President al-Sisi arrives at the White House Tuesday that an alternative narrative is out there.
New Jersey, where thousands of Egyptian-Americans live, can play a vital role in making this happen. The state’s congressional delegation could actively engage – using the various oversight tools in their arsenal. We’ve already seen, in fact, notable engagement from many members of the delegation on human rights: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Robert Menendez both sit on the Foreign Relations Committee and have strong records in support of press freedom, the rule of law, and accountability.
In the House, Representative Malinowski, a Democrat, former Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s human rights bureau and a former Washington director of Human Rights Watch, has long been a vocal ally on human rights. Chris Smith, a Republican and newly appointed co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, can use his new role and platform to highlight these issues.
The New Jersey delegation can help pave the way toward a different kind of alliance, one that encourages a vibrant civil society and rule of law instead of rewarding repression with military aid, assurances, and smiling photos.