If you want to see where President Donald Trump’s foreign policy chops beat his predecessor Barack Obama’s, look to Egypt, the scene of Obama’s most unnecessary foreign policy fail.
In 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, Obama pressured former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign in response to spirited protests in Tahrir Square. It was a completely unforced error, born of Obama’s conceit that he could help usher in a spirit of democracy in the Arab world. Instead, the move put Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, in the presidential palace.
That is, Obama forced out a U.S. ally and got him replaced by an Islamist who vowed to free Omar Abdel-Rahman, the late blind sheikh then serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six.
With the support of many Egyptians, the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in 2012 — and replaced him with his military commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who also has a sorry human rights record and a predilection to suppress dissent. But unlike Morsi, el-Sisi has been moving Egypt in the right direction — which is why Trump has been smart to establish a strong bond with the Egyptian leader.
El-Sisi is “fighting ISIS, fighting Hamas, fighting Islamism, fighting the Brotherhood” with the necessary consistency, notes Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Egyptian and Israeli forces are working together to curb the scourge of regional terrorism. And Egypt has been moving in the right direction in terms of women’s rights — which could benefit women across the region.
But in July, el-Sisi’s government abused its good standing with the United States when it arrested Reem Mohamed Desouky, a Pennsylvania teacher with dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, apparently for criticizing the Egyptian government on Facebook. She has been in prison since her July arrest.
The arrest occurred when Desouky and her son, 13-year-old American-born Moustafa, landed in Cairo for a family visit. As the Washington Post editorialized, her crime was voicing opinions that “many governments would accept as normal, healthy, peaceful criticism.”
When Moustafa Desouky and an uncle went to visit Reem, the son was not allowed to see his mother, and the uncle was detained.
Barak Barfi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says he has not followed the case closely but warns the it may not be as “cookie-cutter clean” as human rights activists suggest. Maybe there’s a reason Cairo is holding Reem Desouky. But the burden of proof is on Cairo, given the government’s zeal for shutting down websites that question el-Sisi’s regime.
The Egyptian government has not released specifics on Desouky’s alleged offense nor responded to my queries.
It’s time for Trump to step in, Schanzer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I hate to use the word,” he added, but “it should be a red line, for U.S. policy, that we cannot stand by while American citizens are held in Egyptian jails.”
A State Department official said in a statement: “We are aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Egypt. When U.S. citizens are detained abroad, consular officers seek to aid them with all appropriate consular assistance. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
Perhaps Trump officials have been working diligently behind the scenes on Desouky’s behalf. But it’s been two months, and if quiet tactics are being used, they don’t seem to be working.
Trump has not said a word about Desouky — which is odd, given his full-throated criticism of Swedish officials who would not free New York rapper A$AP Rocky ahead of his trial.
A Swedish court soon convicted the rapper (whose real name is Rakim Mayers) and his security team for assault but released him on August 3, ahead of the verdict. Even if he returns to Sweden, Mayers is not expected to serve further time behind Swedish bars.
In short, Trump needlessly inserted himself into a Swedish criminal justice matter that everyone knew would end without oppressive injustice. And while there was question as to which parties were to blame, there is no doubt a crime occurred: The street brawl between the rapper, his bodyguards, and some local hecklers was videotaped.
By contrast, Desouky’s situation could not be more dire.
El-Sisi’s government has not released details as to what her crime is supposed to be. She is in prison in a country that is famous for its mistreatment of political prisoners and that is already holding at least four other dual U.S.-Egyptian citizens without due process, according to Human Rights Watch. Her American son is living in limbo and fear in Cairo, when he should be back in school in Pennsylvania.
Maybe Trump could borrow an ounce of the “#FreeRocky” outrage he vented against Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and toss it in el-Sisi’s direction. Or is Trump ever-reluctant to stand up to foreign strongmen?
I’m an American who thinks Obama was wrong about Egypt and has supported Trump’s desire to work with this regime. But I have to wonder, what made el-Sisi think he could throw an American in prison without due process and get away with it?
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.
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