Rival campaigns mount ahead of President Sisi’s visit to the US
Courtesy: The New Arab Twitter

US supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are planning a solidarity march during his meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington DC on Monday, amid a counter-campaign highlighting the plight of Egypt’s political prisoners led by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.

The privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that 10 buses of Sisi supporters are planning to head to DC Sunday night to support the president, according to Nabil Meglaa, head of the “Egypt for all Egyptians” group in the US.

“Supporting the president doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge what is happening against Copts in Egypt”

The same group mobilized 50 buses of supporters last September to support Sisi during his New York visit at the UN headquarters. Meglaa explained that there are fewer supporters this time due to the long commute and that Monday is a work day. 

Egypt for all Egyptians, which is mainly composed of Copts living in the United States, stated its main purpose is to support President Sisi. “Welcoming and supporting the president does not mean not acknowledging what is happening against Copts in Egypt, this is another issue. We will submit our demands to the president’s aides about the conditions of Copts in Egypt,” he said.

A counter campaign was initiated in the last week by US supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, highlighting the violations against political detainees in Egypt. Activists in the US have been putting posters up on the streets of Washington DC to raise awareness about thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. Others have followed suit, using the trending hashtag #FreedomFirst, which has been promoted by the US-based campaigners.

The #FreedomFirst campaign has posted images of political prisoners on walls and benches across the city, particularly outside the Egyptian Embassy in Washington DC, with the name and photo of each prisoner, along with the duration of their detention.

One such notice reads, “Egyptian prisons hold thousands of dissidents, many in cruel and inhumane conditions,” while another cites a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, reading, “Egypt ranks third in the world for the number of journalists imprisoned.”

The #FreedomFirst campaign — both online and on the streets of Washington DC — has been headed by a young Egyptian-American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, who was himself a political prisoner in Egypt. Soltan, the son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Soltan (also a political prisoner), was arrested in August 2013 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. Following a lengthy hunger strike, coupled with US diplomatic pressure, Mohamed Soltan was eventually released in May 2015.

The Washington Post reports that Soltan’s planned advertisement campaign — which would have cost around $US 20,000 — was rejected by the Metro transport agency in the US. The Metro agency clarified that it had rejected the posting of the #FreedomFirst ads in its subway trains on the basis of its policy, which states that, “Advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions are prohibited.”

“Egyptian prisons hold thousands of dissidents, many in cruel and inhumane conditions”

The webpage of the #FreedomFirst campaign posted a video response by Mohamed Soltan, who stated, “These are just facts, they’re not trying to influence anybody.” Despite the Metro agency’s resistance to the campaign, it has been widely circulated on social media networks — both in Egypt, and in many other countries.

One user on Twitter posted an image of several Egyptian female political prisoners jailed under Sisi’s leadership. Another user tweeted that Egypt itself now resembles a large prison. Many others used the #FreedomFirst hashtag to post images and comments about friends, relatives, or acquaintances who are currently in prison in Egypt.

Rather than discussing the plight of Egypt’s political prisoners, however, the April 3 meeting between the US and Egyptian presidents is expected to focus on the threat of global terrorism and joint counter-terrorism efforts.

According to a statement from the White House’s Press Secretary this week, Sisi and Trump will discuss “a range of bilateral and regional issues, including how to defeat the Islamic State and pursue peace and stability in the region.”

Ahead of the meeting on Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights First issued statements regarding the deteriorating condition of press freedoms in Egypt under Sisi.

The CPJ issued a statement on Thursday denouncing Egypt’s ongoing detention of at least 25 journalists and media personnel in a statement titled: “As Egypt-US relationship moves forward, jailed Egyptian journalists left behind.”

“Instead of ignoring the human rights abuses that have occurred in Egypt under Sisi, President Trump must remember that suppressing peaceful dissent and pluralism fuels grievances that are exploited by violent extremists, and is counterproductive,” read a statement issued by New York Based Human Rights First group.

This statement argued that, since his military-led takeover in July 2013, “Sisi has pursued policies that have fueled the grievances exploited by violent extremists,” citing the radicalization of Egyptian political prisoners such as Ayman al-Zawahri — leader of Al-Qaeda — and the late Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was later imprisoned in the US in light of his association with the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.

The Human Rights First statement argued that the ongoing use of torture by Sisi’s security forces served to further radicalize political prisoners. The statement also pointed to the government’s crackdown on civil society, including the closure of Al-Nadeem Center for the rehabilitation of torture victims.

“President Trump must remember that suppressing peaceful dissent and pluralism fuels grievances that are exploited by violent extremists”

“Hosting Egypt’s repressive president at the White House sends the wrong message to the world on how to overcome the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism,” the statement read. “President Trump is unlikely to challenge or criticize Sisi for any of his destructive, counterproductive polices, but he should.”

Human Rights Watch also criticized the meeting in a statement on Sunday, saying it “shows mutual contempt for rights.”

“Inviting al-Sisi for an official visit to Washington as tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail and when torture is again the order of the day is a strange way to build a stable strategic relationship,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

HRW urged the US Congress to restrict security assistance to Egypt unless there is clear progress in human rights. Congress had conditioned military aid on Egypt’s human rights record in 2012, but later lifted these restrictions based on US national security interests.

“Giving more money to the Sisi government is to the detriment of US and Egyptian interests,” Margon said. “Neither side in this relationship seems interested in promoting human rights, but the gross abuses being committed by Egyptian authorities should compel Congress to keep limiting support.”


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