Americans are learning the hard way how interconnected our world is—notably, this week, with North Korea. Some decisions you don’t get to take back.
In the summer of 2011, I played my last intramural football game at The Ohio State University as a senior undergraduate. Two short years later, I found myself in Egypt, running not from would-be tacklers, but for my life, from an army deployed to kill its own people. That day—four years ago this week-- the Egyptian army perpetrated one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history, mercilessly gunning down more than 824 innocent civilians. I was shot but survived, only to spend the next 21 months in an Egyptian prison where torture, brutality and sadism were the hallmarks of my day-to-day existence.
All this because, as an American, I’d wanted Egyptians to enjoy the same freedoms I’d been raised with and cherished. I was part of a nonviolent protest, a 45-day sit-in against the military coup that curtailed Egypt’s nascent democracy. Four years ago today, the mass killing in Cairo’s Rabaa Square (now frequently referenced simply as “Rabaa”) marked the bloody beginning of an unprecedented wave of repression that is plaguing Egypt to this day.
At the helm of the crackdown? Current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—at the time, Defense Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, and, notably, someone Donald Trump has praised as a “fantastic guy” with whom he enjoys strong “chemistry.” The feelings are returned: Asked if Trump would be a strong leader by CNN’s Erin Burnett, Sisi said, “No doubt,” and was the first world leader to call and congratulate Trump on his election as president in November. When Sisi visited the White House in April, the two were especially chummy, with Trump calling Sisi a “friend” and complimenting his taste in footwear. “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes. Man,” Trump gushed. Man, indeed.
Worst of all is the message Trump’s coziness with Sisi sends to perpetrators of repression and violence. Since Trump has opened up the doors to the White House to Sisi, Egyptians under his rule have seen a spike in repression. Sisi, emboldened, has cracked down on further dissent, ratifying a draconian NGO law that closes up political space. In the last 6 weeks alone, there have been more than 60 extrajudicial killings in the country.
Today, 19 Americans continue to languish in Egyptian prison without any sort of due process. Among them: Mostafa Kaseem, a New York paralegal. Ahmed Etiwy, a student from Brooklyn, who lived in Trump-owned real estate before his arrest. They join more than 40,000 Egyptian political prisoners, journalists and activists Sisi has jailed without charge or trial, even sentencing some to death in sham trials, and who are now spending their fourth year in utterly inhumane conditions.
Trump successfully oversaw the release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker imprisoned in Cairo for three years. Yet, he continues to has turn a blind eye to the ones still imprisoned in Egypt, all while allowing the United States to continue give Egypt more than $1.3 billion annually in military aid. Actions speak louder than words and we need to see the president do more to get these prisoners released.
The 2013 killings at Rabaa were a critical turning point in Egypt’s history, when the country’s democratic rule gave way to a repressive crackdown that has only intensified in the Trump era. That’s dangerous not just for Egyptians, but for Americans. The fate of Egypt, the largest and most populated country in a turmoil-filled region, is something we don’t have the luxury of closing our eyes to. The current political situation is a pressure cooker with no outlet. The least we can do is get our citizens out before things take a turn for the worse.