Monday 01/06/2020 - 12:20 pm

American once held in Egyptian prison sees opportunity for Trump in el-Sissi meeting

2017.04.03 10:20

Mohamed Soltan, an American who was imprisoned for nearly two years in Egypt, says he is optimistic that President Trump will do a better job than former President Barack Obama in securing the release of the other U.S. citizens detained by the military government in Cairo.

Mr. Trump meets Monday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and Mr. Soltan recoils at the thought of his captor — a military leader with a long record of human rights abuses — getting the red carpet treatment at the White House.

But he also views it as an opportunity for Mr. Trump to use his negotiating skills to win freedom for the seven or more Americans locked up in Egypt, a country the State Department criticizes for harsh prison conditions, torture and arbitrary arrests and executions.

“My message [to Mr. Trump] is to stay true to form, stay true to your campaign message. If America comes first, we should be able to get our American citizens out,” Mr. Soltan told The Washington Times.

“President Obama struggled to get one person out — me. Now what can we do about the others?” he said. “President Trump is ‘The Art of the Deal.’ He is the great negotiator. So he should be able to understand the kind of leverage that the United States government has and demand that our citizens be released.”

Mr. Soltan attended a sit-in protest in 2013 in Cairo, where he was shot in the arm by Egyptian security forces breaking up the demonstration. He later was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

His father, Salah Soltan, was a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization targeted by Mr. el-Sissi as a terrorist group. The elder Mr. Soltan also was arrested.

The younger Mr. Soltan insisted that he was never a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and described his presence at the protest as that of a citizen journalist, opposing the military coup but not supporting deposed President Mohammed Morsi, who remains in prison awaiting a retrial on spying charges.

The White House said the meeting with Mr. el-Sissi would “reboot” the strong relationship between the two countries and the meetings would focus on security and counterterrorism. Human rights issues would be a subject for private talks.

“Human rights are always an issue of concern to the United States, and they’re first and foremost in our discussions. Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way,” said a senior administration official.

“We believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome,” the senior official said.

Mr. Obama never hosted Mr. el-Sissi at the White House.

The Obama administration, however, resumed paying about $1.5 billion in annual military aid to the el-Sissi government in 2015, saying it would promote stability and the fight against terrorism.

The aid was suspended for two years after the military coup.

Mr. el-Sissi seized power in 2013 from the democratically elected Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to power following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Shortly after taking office in 2012, Mr. Morsi implemented pro-Islamist reforms that provoked civil protest and the military coup.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump spoke out against the generous military aid to Egypt, which is the second-largest beneficiary of military aid after Israel, saying the money would be better spent at home.

Trump administration officials said military aid is expected to continue.

Mr. Trump has been criticized for embracing Mr. el-Sissi and described him as a “fantastic guy” after they met in September.

Mr. Soltan warned that those words resonate deeply in Egypt. He recalled during his imprisonment that Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared Egypt as on its way to “restoring democracy.”

“I know the feeling that as an American to be inside and hear the third-highest representation of your government say that — it was completely disappointing,” said Mr. Soltan. “The ISIS recruiters inside of prison use that, and they used that on me and others. They definitely used that as an argument that, you know, the West is abandoning its own values, its own principles.”

“You can’t really divorce the human rights issue from the security issue,” he said. “You are feeding this vicious cycle of radicalization.”

Others are pressing Mr. Trump to bring human rights to the forefront in dealing with Egypt.

A bipartisan group of five senators announced last week a resolution on America’s commitment to a U.S.-Egyptian partnership. The resolution also stressed the need for improved human rights in Egypt.

“While our two countries seek a deeper relationship, it’s important for Egypt to make progress on human rights, democracy and economic reforms,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who co-sponsored the resolution.

“I urge President Trump to press for the release of political prisoners in Egypt, including jailed Americans, and encourage Egypt to allow greater space for civil society and freedom of expression for all, and permit nongovernmental organizations to operate freely,” Mr. Rubio said.

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