Critics urge Trump to address rights concerns during Sisi meeting

Groups call on US to oppose Sisi's bid to extend rule, saying proposed constitution changes would 'worsen rights abuses'

    US President Donald Trump welcomes Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House in Washington in April 2017 [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]
    US President Donald Trump welcomes Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House in Washington in April 2017 [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

    Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is set to meet US President Donald Trump on Tuesday amid continued controversy at home over his bid to extend his rule and concerns over human rights violations.

    The meeting will be Sisi's second visit to the White House since he took office in 2014.

    Relations between Cairo and Washington were tense under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. But they have warmed considerably under Trump, who has been willing to set aside human rights concerns to rebuild close defence and diplomatic ties.

    On Tuesday, the two heads of state will discuss military, economic, and counterterrorism cooperation, according to a White House statement.

    "The two leaders will also discuss developments and shared priorities in the region, including enhancing regional economic integration and addressing ongoing conflicts, and Egypt's longstanding role as a lynchpin of regional stability," a White House statement said.

    Rights groups accuse Egypt of instituting a widespread crackdown on dissent, including the torture of political prisoners - allegations the Egyptian government has denied. 

    Rights concerns are not expected to top Tuesday's agenda, and groups accuse the US of overlooking abuses by Egypt. 

    In 2018, the Trump administration released $195m in military aid to Egypt after withholding the assistance the previous year over human rights concerns. The US said the decision followed steps Egypt took in response to specific US concerns, and it cited stronger US-Egypt ties in security and counterterrorism while also acknowledging remaining areas of concern about human rights and governance.

    The Trump administration has asked Congress for $1.382bn in assistance for Egypt for the next fiscal year.

    Earlier this year, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, delivered a speechat the American University in Cairo where he outlined Trump's Middle East vision. 

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    During his visit, Pompeo praised Sisi as a partner in the fight against "terrorism" while dodging questions over rising human rights concerns under Sisi.

    Critics have urged the White House to address human rights concerns during Sisi's visit to the US, as well as the Egyptian president's attempt to hold onto power.  

    'Power grab'

    In February, Egypt's parliament approved a set of proposed constitutional amendments that would allow Sisi to rule up until 2034 and give the military greater power. The amendments are expected to be put to a referendum later this month. 

    "The fact that the trip is happening right now is directly tied to Sisi's desire for the US and Trump's endorsement for [his] attempt to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power and bolster his power in other ways," said Amy Hawthorne, research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed).

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that the amendments, which would also increase the military's political role and grant Sisi control over the judiciary, would "institutionalise authoritarianism". 

    US officials have not publicly criticised efforts by the Egyptian parliament or Sisi's supporters to advance amendments to the constitution, and some see Sisi's White House visit as a way for the Egyptian president to secure the green light for the amendments.  

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    "Sisi is in Washington to obtain a green light for proposed constitutional amendments that grant the military highly abusive powers and further institutionalise authoritarianism," said Michael Page, HRW's deputy Middle East and Northern Africa director.

    "Given President Trump's silence on abuses, Congress should step up and condemn this initiative," he added. 

    Magdelina Mughrabi, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, added that the amendments would "worsen the devastating human rights crisis Egyptians are already facing". 

    On Monday, a bipartisan group of leading US senators called on the State Department to raise key concerns in meetings with Sisi.

    In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, 17 senators urged him to convey concerns over the detention of American citizens by the Egyptian government, Egypt's deepening relationship with the Kremlin including the reported purchase of Russian fighter jets, and the concerning erosion of political and worsening human rights in recent years.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies