On April 9, the White House will once again be welcoming Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to the United States. While Trump last praised al-Sisi for doing “a fantastic job in a difficult situation,” the country now is more dangerous than ever before in its recent history for those peacefully working to make it better, while the authorities are bracing to pass constitutional amendments that will strengthen impunity for human rights violations and allow President Sisi to stay in power until 2034. The White House now faces a choice: congratulate al-Sisi on a job well done, as the authorities continue in their ruthless crackdown on human rights or speak up for the thousands openly calling for change.

Egyptians who currently speak up against the government are being locked up without a fair trial, branded as “terrorists” and “criminals” simply for peacefully expressing their opinions. A crackdown of this scale has not been seen in decades. The crackdown has been intensifying, with at least 57 arrested in 2019 for peacefully expressing their opinions and imprisoned over unfounded charges. 

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Eight years after the start of Egypt’s revolution, the Egyptian people are facing an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression under al-Sisi. Recently passed legislation has enabled mass censorship of independent news platforms as well as human rights groups, and laws adopted by Parliament without consultation with the press or with civil society under the pretext of “anti-terrorism” measures have resulted in at least 504 blocked websites.

Now, the proposed constitutional amendments are set to be a devastating blow that would pave the way for worsening the human rights crisis Egypt is already facing. They would also strengthen the influence of the Egyptian military over government, remove the requirement for judicial review of draft legislation, as well as expanding notoriously unfair military trials for civilians and granting the president sweeping powers to manage judicial affairs and appoint senior judges. They would therefore grant President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi and security forces free rein to further abuse their powers and cement their iron grip over the country for years to come.

During the 2011 uprising, millions of people took to the streets to reject precisely this type of authoritarian power grab under former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Yet since President al-Sisi came to power human rights have catastrophically deteriorated. 

Over the past year, people who dared to criticize the government have been arrested and sent to prison, often held in solitary confinement or subjected to enforced disappearances simply for posting their opinions on social media, giving media interviews, denouncing sexual harassment and even for supporting certain football clubs. In some cases, those arrested had done nothing at all.

The LGBTQI community has experienced a massive crackdown with dozens arrested and charged with defamation of religion and “habitual debauchery”, simply for either being, or being perceived as, LGBTQI. Horrifically, some were even forced to undergo forced anal examinations that amount to torture.

Egyptian authorities have continued to target human rights defenders and severely restrict their work in an unprecedented manner. Our newest investigation in March found a wave of digital phishing attacks that targeted Egyptian civil society. The malicious attacks likely originated from government-backed bodies and involved multiple attempts to gain access to the email accounts of several prominent Egyptian human rights defenders, members of the media, and civil society organizations’ staff. The attacks  appear to be part of a wider strategy targeting critics, which began with authorities harassing civil society through an ongoing criminal investigation into NGOs and a repressive NGO law. Dozens of human rights defenders and NGO staff were investigated for “receiving foreign funding,” facing prison if convicted. Even though some human rights defenders and journalists Amal Fathy and Shawkan have been released recently, many remain behind bars or worse, disappeared.
To cover for its egregious human rights abuses, the regime has begun using the protection of religious minorities as its scapegoat, while continuing to abuse their rights even further.  Coptic Christians, an estimated 10 percent of the Egyptian population and historically a target of widespread legal and social discrimination, have been the victims of increasing sectarian attacks since al-Sisi rose to power, while local officials have upheld the oppression of these communities. The new Church building laws have failed to guarantee their right to practice their religion. 

Using the carrot instead of the stick and looking at the $1.4 billion that Congress has appropriated for bilateral assistance for Egypt, the White House now has the opportunity to pressure al-Sisi to release those he has detained solely for peacefully expressing their opinions and end the crackdown that’s left thousands arbitrarily arrested. Congress can also raise the issue during al-Sisi's visit by calling for hearings to assess the human rights situation in Egypt and the country's relationship with the Egyptian government. The alternative is for this administration to continue signing a blank check to a government brutally cracking down against its own people.

Philippe Nassif is Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.