Congress must act to contain Egypt's human rights inferno

Congress must act to contain Egypt's human rights inferno
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Egypt is a human rights inferno.

The Biden administration has not only ignored the inferno — including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s complicity in the assassination of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi — but has emboldened Egypt to further human rights atrocities. It has proposed $1.3 billion in annual military aid and suggested judicial immunity for an Egyptian former prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, allegedly complicit in the torture of an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan. Soltan’s relatives in Egypt have been arrested in retaliation for his private lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act against Beblawi and other Egyptian officials. And only this week, Biden hosted Egypts’ intelligence chief Abbas Kamel. 

Congress should not only deny arming the Egyptian leader but also enact targeted sanctions against Egyptian officials implicated in the violation of fundamental internationally recognized human rights, including Sisi himself.  To do less would be to stab Arab Spring in the back.

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On June 14, Egypt’s highest court affirmed death sentences for 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood figures over a 2013 sit-in. Those facing execution include Abdul Rahman Al-Bar, the Brotherhood’s top religious scholar, Mohamed El-Beltagi, a former member of parliament, and Osama Yassin, a former minister.

The trials of the 12 predictably mocked the internationally recognized fundamental human right to a fair trial enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The presiding judges acted as Sisi’s posse and disposed of his political detractors without credible evidence of guilt or the right of the defendants to cross examine accusers.

June 14 was exemplary of Egypt’s human rights inferno. An unknown number of citizens rot in Sisi’s jails and prisons for insisting on free speech and association. Mass trials and the substitution of military for civilian justice are commonplace. The Biden administration’s 2020 human rights report on Egypt chills like a page from Stalin’s dystopia:

“Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government…politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country…serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests and prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking … substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association … compulsory child labor, including its worst forms.”

Congress must take the lead in defending human rights in Egypt, as it defended the human rights of Jews in the Soviet Union with the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974.  Under the Constitution, foreign policy is not the exclusive prerogative of the president. Congress is empowered to regulate foreign commerce or to dictate foreign policy, as it has with the Taiwan Relations Act, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, or the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in addition to the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Congress should amend the Torture Victims Protection Act to deny head of state or other official immunity for complicity in extrajudicial killings or torture, universal crimes against mankind. There is no official immunity defense in criminal prosecutions for such atrocities under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. To recognize such immunity in civil litigation is morally obtuse and unjust. Congress should further amend the act to create personal jurisdiction in United States courts against foreign officials implicated in extrajudicial killings or torture perpetrated in their own countries against their own citizens or subjects. These amendments would make Sisi and his men think twice before unleashing atrocities against the likes of Soltan or other peaceful proponents of human rights in Egypt.  

Congress should, additionally, enact legislation directing the Biden administration to deny visas and block any commercial transactions involving any Egyptian official, including Sisi, who has been credibly accused of complicity in extrajudicial killings, torture, or violations of other internationally recognized human rights.

Experience teaches that the executive branch invariably subordinates human rights to the realpolitik of Empire. If Congress does not attempt to extinguish the human rights inferno in Egypt, it will burn out of control.

Bruce Fein was associate deputy attorney general and general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Reagan, research director for the Joint Congressional Committee on Covert Arms Sales to Iran and is author of “American Empire Before The Fall.”