Washington DC – As the White House prepared to roll out the red carpet for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a parody lookalike of the Egyptian leader showed up at the Washington Monument, a few blocks away.
Wearing an oversized mask of Sisi, the impersonator was part of a vigil held on Sunday to draw attention to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian prisons.
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The man under the mask kept quiet as he tore up protesters’ banners with gloves stained red to resemble blood.
Others were more vocal, condemning President Donald Trump’s decision to meet Sisi and criticising the US support for his government.
“We’re giving $1.5bn to an autocrat who has killed thousands of people, who has imprisoned tens of thousands of people, including Americans,” said Mohamed Soltan, an American who was jailed in Egypt for nearly two years. “We’re here to shed light on their plight.”
With Trump calling Sisi a “fantastic man” after meeting him in September last year, activists are worried that human rights abuses in Egypt will be overlooked with a new leadership in the White House seeking to strengthen ties with the country.
The Obama administration temporarily halted military aid to Egypt shortly after Sisi led the overthrow of democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. It also repeatedly criticised the government’s crackdown on political opponents, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Trump, on the other hand, appeared to praise Sisi’s leadership in an interview with Fox Business when he said Sisi “took control of Egypt, and he really took control of it”.
A White House official said on Friday that the new administration’s approach is to handle “sensitive issues” such as human rights “in a private, more discreet way” than previous presidents have done.
The official did not say whether Trump would bring up the case of the imprisoned American NGO worker Aya Hijazi when he meets Sisi.
Hijazi could face a life sentence in Egypt after being accused of running a child sex trafficking ring and using children in anti-government protests. Human Rights Watch has called the case “a travesty of justice” and her supporters say she was running a children’s charity before her arrest in 2014.
According to #FreedomFirst, the campaign that Soltan is spearheading, at least seven American citizens are currently imprisoned in Egypt.
“We need to tell the world what kind of man Trump is bringing to the White House,” Soltan, who was jailed after attending a sit-in against Morsi’s removal in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya square, told Al Jazeera.
Hundreds of people were killed as security forces dispersed the protest on August 14, 2013. Soltan’s father, a Muslim Brotherhood official, was also arrested and imprisoned.
Mass trials have since been held for thousands of Brotherhood supporters, and hundreds have received death sentences or lengthy prison terms.
Soltan fears that with Sisi getting a warm welcome in Washington, Egyptian security forces “will feel even more emboldened and empowered, that the whole world is behind them”.
Besides Trump, Sisi will meet officials at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which both have extended loans to Cairo. He will also meet representatives of the American chamber of commerce and major US companies to discuss investment opportunities in Egypt.
Abdallah Hendawy, a lecturer on global affairs at George Mason University, told Al Jazeera that at a time when Egypt’s relationships with Gulf Arab states are deteriorating, Sisi is looking for a new economic lifeline and a new strategic ally.
A major reason why the new US administration seems willing to take on that role, Hendawy said, is that Trump needs a regional ally as he pushes on with his “anti-terror” agenda.
“Trump doesn’t pay attention to human rights,” he said. “He is looking for support as people accuse him of being anti-Islam. He sees Sisi as a reformist who counters jihadi rhetoric – someone to support his fight against what he calls Islamic fanaticism.”