Blinken: U.S. to keep pressing Egypt on human rights

The United States will continue to encourage Egypt to take steps on human rights, including freeing more political prisoners and guaranteeing freedom of expression, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Cairo on Monday.

After talks with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Blinken told reporters that Egypt had taken “important strides” protecting religious freedoms, empowering women and releasing some prisoners.

“But the concerns that we have remain and in the spirit of candour and the spirit of the partnership we have, we expressed those very clearly,” Blinken said, adding that he had raised the cases of individual prisoners.

“With regard to human rights individual cases, I have raised in the past and again, raised today, individual [cases]. That’s important. So too though is progress on systemic change,” Blinken said during a press conference alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Prior to his meeting with Shoukry, Blinken met for more than an hour with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the presidential palace on Monday.

Elizabeth Hagedorn tweeted, saying: “Asked about Egypt’s political prisoners including Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed El-Baqer, and Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim, Secretary Blinken in Cairo says he raised the cases of certain individuals in his meetings with Egyptian officials.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he raised the cases of individual political prisoners during his two-day visit to Cairo, which included a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Asked why Cairo hasn’t listened to US calls for their release, Blinken tells me: “I can’t answer for you why the government does or does not do certain things. Those are its prerogatives.”

The U.S. official arrived in Cairo on Sunday on a three-day regional tour that coincides with an escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Blinken said he wanted to strengthen Washington’s strategic partnership with Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. military aid that has helped mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past.

Under Sisi’s watch, Egypt is believed to have jailed tens of thousands of perceived government critics on charges rights groups say are baseless. They include prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim.

Human rights violations in the North African country have complicated the US relationship with Egypt, which the Biden administration views as a key counterterrorism partner and important regional mediator in conflicts between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas. 

The State Department announced in September it would withhold some but not all of Egypt’s annual security aid that Congress had conditioned on the Egyptian government carrying out certain human rights improvements.

In defending that decision, US officials pointed to the government’s creation of a national dialogue with the opposition, the work of its presidential pardon committee and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

On Monday, Blinken highlighted “the important strides” Egypt has made on human rights, pointing to protections for religious freedom and the empowerment of women.

“We continue to encourage the Egyptian government take further actions to pursue concrete progress, including further releases of prisoners, reforms to pretrial detention and other law enforcement practices protecting the central work of civil society,” he said.

But nongovernmental organizations say the number of new arrests has outpaced prisoner releases. According to “Till The Last Prisoner,” a campaign led by independent rights organizations, 185 arrests and 94 releases were reported to rights groups in January.

Ahead of his meetings with Sisi and Shoukry, Blinken met with Egyptian civil society members and leading human rights defenders for a discussion of their “critical work to advance fundamental freedoms in Egypt,” the State Department said in a readout.

Blinken and Sisi also discussed de-escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, stalled elections in war-torn Libya, the political process in Sudan and the deteriorating economic situation in Egypt, according to the department.

Blinken also stressed US support for a diplomatic resolution to Egypt and Sudan’s dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Blinken meets with civil society members

In Cairo, Blinken also met with a group of Egyptian civil society members, “in line with the United States’ commitment to protect human rights globally”.

Blinken heard about their critical work to advance fundamental freedoms in Egypt.

After the meeting, Hossam Bahgat tweeted: “In a meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, we discussed human rights issues in US foreign policy, including in Egypt and occupied Palestine.”

The US Secretary reaffirmed the importance of human rights to U.S. foreign policy, emphasized the United States’ steadfast support for human rights defenders, and pledged to continue close U.S. engagement with Egyptian civil society.

However, Sherif Osman tweeted, saying: “At the time Secretary Blinken talks about human rights in Egypt, many Egyptians were arrested for posting simple, minutes-long videos that sarcastically talks about their daily lives or about the inability to afford buying food. This regime wants to rule people without tolerating their voices.”