CIA DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN wrapped up a two-day visit to Cairo this week where he held meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and security officials to discuss regional developments and terrorism.
Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran who has played a role backing some of the most controversial post-9/11 policies, lauded the strategic relations between Egypt and the United States and emphasized the need to boost cooperation in all areas, including on security issues, according to a statement from the presidential spokesperson’s office.
As chief architect of the Obama administration’s secret drone program, Brennan has been dubbed the “assassination czar.” He has also publicly supported the CIA’s use of torture — or what the U.S. government has called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — and has vociferously defended the government’s policy of mass domestic surveillance.
Similarly, Sisi, who was appointed director of Egypt’s powerful military intelligence service in 2010, also comes from an intelligence background.
Brennan is looking to strengthen counterterrorism ties with Egypt, which has long cooperated with the United States. Egypt was the first, and for years the most common, destination for the U.S. extraordinary rendition program, the controversial policy whereby terror suspects are captured and flown to third-party states to be tortured by foreign intelligence agencies.
Brennan has been a vocal supporter of extraordinary rendition, describing the program as “an absolutely vital tool … that has saved lives.”
This is the second visit by Brennan to Cairo in less than a year and comes as the United States has restored its ties to Egypt despite unprecedented human rights abuses by the Sisi regime. The last few weeks have seen an intensified crackdown by security forces ahead of the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution that forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak from office after 30 years in power.
Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned in Egypt since Sisi overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 following mass protests. Many face charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s group that has been deemed a terrorist organization and outlawed.
In recent weeks, Egyptian security forces have arrested political activists and Facebook page administrators, raided news outlets, and stormed hundreds of apartments in residential areas surrounding Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the 2011 revolution. A court in January sentenced four journalists to three years in prison on charges of “publishing false news” and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The repression and intimidation have been acknowledged as official government policy. “We have taken several measures to ensure activists don’t have breathing space and are unable to gather, and several cafes and other meeting places have been closed, while some have been arrested in order to scare the rest,” an official at Egypt’s homeland security agency told Reuters.
In 2015 alone, nearly 500 people died at the hands of Egypt’s security forces and over 600 people were tortured while in detention, according to a report by a local human rights group. Meanwhile hundreds of people are being forcibly disappeared by security forces at a rate of nearly 100 every month since August. Many turn up weeks or months later inside Egypt’s prison labyrinth after repeated denials by authorities that they are being held in custody.
Thousands are languishing behind bars in pre-trial detention, the legal mechanism of choice for Egyptian authorities to imprison whomever they please for extended periods without having to bother with a trial, as with the case of Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, a 20-year-old student who has spent over 700 days in detention following his arrest for wearing an anti-torture T-shirt.
The Sisi government has repeatedly invoked its self-proclaimed war on terror as justification for its draconian measures. Yet, since Sisi came to power in July 2013, Egypt is facing more anti-state violence than ever before, with a sustained insurgency in North Sinai, the emergence of new militant groups, and an average of over 100 attacks per month in 2015 that have targeted the capital and tourist areas.
In addition to praising the security ties between Egypt and the United States, Brennan also congratulated Sisi on the completion of a transitional “roadmap” with the election of a new parliament.
The 596-seat assembly, which is packed with Sisi supporters, was elected last year in a vote with a low turnout of around 30 percent and amid allegations of interference by the president’s office and the intelligence services to secure a loyal majority bloc.
Egypt has been a close ally of the United States for nearly four decades and is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel. In return, Egypt grants priority access to the Suez Canal for U.S. warships, provides the U.S. military relatively unrestricted overflight rights, secures the border with Gaza, and maintains its peace treaty with Israel.
Following the overthrow of Morsi in 2013, U.S. aid was partially suspended. Last year, the Obama administration restored full military aid to Egypt and delivered eight F-16s in July. The restoration came despite official acknowledgment of the Sisi regime’s human rights abuses.
In May, a congressionally mandated U.S. State Department report on Egypt found that security forces “have committed arbitrary or otherwise unlawful killings” and that a series of decrees, new laws, and judicial actions restrict basic freedoms and “undermine the prospects of democratic governance.”