When news broke that Moustafa Kassem, an American being held in an Egyptian prison, died on Monday, my heart sank. Kassem, the fourth detainee to die in Egyptian custody this month, had been the subject of high-level negotiations between the US and Egyptian governments; Vice President Mike Pence was reported to have appealed directly to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Mr. Kassem’s behalf.
My brother is also in an Egyptian prison cell. But like the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, he doesn’t have Trump administration officials pushing for his release. It’s horrifying to think about their fate.
My brother Mohamed Abdellatif’s “crime” was launching a Twitter campaign last summer to improve the working conditions and salaries of healthcare workers in Egypt. A dentist and healthcare advocate, his campaign received such widespread media coverage that he was hopeful the government would react. It did – but not how he had hoped.
On September 1, seven police vans and 50 armed men stormed our family home and seized the phones, laptops and passports of everyone in the building, including my brother’s two young children, as well as about $1,000 in cash. They then blindfolded my brother and marched him off in handcuffs to an undisclosed police building.
He remained there nine days, blindfolded and handcuffed, unable to move or talk. He was offered little food. When he finally appeared for a prosecution hearing, he was extremely pale, had clearly lost weight, and was wearing the same clothes as when he was arrested.
A few days before my brother appeared in the prosecution, the American and Egyptian presidents met at the G7 summit in Biarritz. As he waited in one of the lavish rooms of the Hotel du Palais, Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my favorite dictator?” Minutes later, el-Sisi arrived. “We understood each other very well,” Trump said after the meeting. “He’s a very tough man, I will tell you that. But he’s also a good man, and he’s done a fantastic job in Egypt. Not easy.” He made no mention of Egypt’s human rights record.
According to Human Rights Watch, since el-Sisi took office following a 2013 coup, his regime has imprisoned more than 60,000 people for political reasons. The government often keeps people in pre-trial detention for up to 150 days before giving them any judicial process; judges can then renew their detention for up to two years. Sometimes, detainees will be released after two years, but sometimes they just disappear or are recharged.
Each of these 60,000 political prisoners being held in Egypt has family, so it’s not hard to imagine the toll the el-Sisi’s regime takes on society. My brother’s two young daughters have lost their father. His wife, who was pregnant when he was arrested, will likely give birth alone. My brother was also the primary provider for our elderly father, who now has trouble keeping up with his doctor’s visits. And then there are my brother’s patients, deprived of his care, and his students, deprived of his supervision.
Egypt has defended its actions by claiming that it is fighting extremists. But my brother is not an extremist, nor even affiliated with any political party. He is a dentist who wants to improve the working conditions for his colleagues in Egypt. In 2012, he was elected to the Egyptian Dental Association. He fought in the courts to increase government sick pay for medical professionals who contract an infection through his work. He repeatedly declined calls for a strike and street protests, and instead kept his campaign on social media and other channels.
The United States has the leverage to stop these human rights violations. Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel, receiving $1.3 billion a year. This aid could be conditioned on the release of political prisoners. Trump has sacrificed some of this influence by negotiating Mr Kassem’s release – but still has room to act.
The US could, for example, apply sanctions on Egypt – something it was all too willing to do when Cairo announced it was planning to buy fighter jets from Russia. When financial interests are at stake, the Trump administration has shown it is willing to act. If only it would do so on behalf of the country’s 60,000 political prisoners.