Mike Pence’s Egypt Trip Gives Glimmer of Hope to Advocates of American Political Prisoners

But the advocates aren't holding their breath.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with US Vice President Mike Pence (L) at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo on January 20, 2018. Pence arrived in Egypt to begin a delayed Middle East tour overshadowed by anger in the Arab world over Washington's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meets with US Vice President Mike Pence (L) at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo on January 20, 2018. Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

For Moustafa Kassem, August 14, 2013 began as just another day in Cairo, where he was spending some time. The 52-year-old auto-parts dealer needed to run a simple errand in the Nasr City neighborhood: trading dollars for Egyptian pounds. Around noon, Kassem left the house where he was staying, about 7 miles from Nasr City, despite an ominous start to the day.

That morning, Egyptian security forces had started their round-up of demonstrators camped out in Nasr City’s Rab’a Square, a protest against the military coup the month before led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now Egypt’s president. By 1:30 p.m., around when Kassem left the currency exchange, the crackdown on Rab’a Square had intensified. More police and soldiers were on the streets in Nasr City, according to his brother-in-law, Mustafa Ahmed, who accompanied him on the errand.

As Kassem and Ahmed tried to go up the street where their car was parked, an army officer stationed there had cut off the route, according to Ahmed. (Ahmed requested that The Intercept refer to him only by that name for fear of retaliation from Egyptian security when he travels back to the country.) Kassem was perturbed, Ahmed told The Intercept, demanding that the army officer allow him to walk up the street to the car. It would be a grave mistake.

The officer aimed his gun at Kassem and cocked it. Kassem pulled out his American passport. “I’m an American,” he said. “I have the right to go get my car.” But the officer threw his passport on the ground, stomped on it, and then threw Kassem down. A group of nearby soldiers began to beat him. Kassem was handcuffed and put in an army truck, ensnaring the American in a brutal crackdown in and around Rab’a Square that ultimately resulted in the killings of at least 817 people and the arrests of hundreds more. Kassem has been in jail ever since. Because he has yet to be convicted of any crime, his detention has no end in sight. And as the days of Kassem’s imprisonment have ticked by, his own government has given Egypt over $6.8 billion in military and economic aid.


Photo of Moustafa Kassem before he was imprisoned.

Photo: Courtesy of the Kassem family

Kassem, who normally lives in a quiet New York suburb, became one of an estimated 60,000 political prisoners caught in the wide web of Egypt’s repressive security forces. Unlike the vast majority of those prisoners, Kassem, along with an estimated 19 others, has American citizenship, which has brought his case to the attention of American diplomats, members of Congress, and Vice President Mike Pence, who met with Sisi on January 20 in Cairo to discuss counterterrorism and U.S. policy in the region.

In the weeks leading up to Pence’s visit to Egypt, human rights advocates stepped up their efforts to bring attention to the plight of the imprisoned Americans, holding a press call for journalists, contacting members of Congress, and urging the White House to raise the detainees’ cases with Egyptian officials.

Kassem also spoke out from his jail cell before Pence arrived. In a handwritten letter smuggled out of prison, Kassem wrote to President Donald Trump that all he longs for is “to be reunited with my children back in New York” — a “dream of reunion that is many times interrupted with the grim reality of my prison cell and screams of torture in a faint distance.” The letter was sent to the White House on January 18.

Their efforts seemed to have worked. Pence told reporters that he brought up the cases of Kassem and Ahmed Etiwy, another imprisoned American, during his talk with Sisi. “Sisi assured me” that he would give “very serious attention” to those cases, Pence said.

“I told him we’d like to see those American citizens restored to their families and restored to our country,” the vice president added.

Pence’s remarks, which marked the first time a White House official has publicly raised the plight of jailed Egyptian-Americans, were a positive sign for the families of Kassem and Etiwy, though Pence did not mention the other 18 Americans in jail, nor did he bring up the plight of two American green card holders being held in solitary confinement.

“I was very happy,” said Ahmed, Kassem’s brother-in-law. “The vice president gave me hope.”

Still, Egypt experts cautioned that more needed to be done to make progress on freeing the Egyptian-Americans.

“There should be public criticism and explicit statements that we believe those individuals were arrested and imprisoned unjustly on politicized charges, and explicit calls that they be released,” said Andrew Miller, who handled U.S.-Egypt relations in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and served in Trump’s State Department for nine months. “There has to be some gesture toward the consequences if they don’t follow through on our request. At the very least, we should be willing to say how they handle this will have implications for the relationship and the ability of the administration to cooperate with Egypt.”

Pence’s remarks in Cairo were a surprising about-face from an administration that had said criticism of Egypt should remain private and ignored pleas from human rights advocates to speak up about the jailed Americans. The U.S.-based lawyers for three current and former American detainees, Praveen Madhiraju and Fred Crombie, and Mohamed Soltan, an American who was imprisoned in Egypt, had contacted the White House over a dozen times about the detainees’ cases and received no response.

“We didn’t know they were involved. We hadn’t heard directly from them,” said Madhiraju. “But clearly, they did know about these cases and got the message that there were real injustices against Americans in Egypt.”

For the past four years, the Kassem family has had to learn how to fight for Moustafa without the help of their government. That battle started on August 14, 2013, the last time the Kassem family saw Moustafa for 20 days. After he was arrested, Kassem disappeared into the black hole of Egypt’s prison system until his family, after calling Egyptian officials around the country, located him in Abu Zaabal prison, north of Cairo. When Ahmed, his brother-in-law, visited him, he said he could not recognize Kassem because of how badly he had been beaten by jail officers.

“I couldn’t recognize him. His face [was] not a face,” Ahmed said. “The face, you cannot see eyes. You cannot see nose. You cannot see lips. It’s big, black, blue, green, and no eyes, no nothing. So I told him, at least he’s alive.”

According to family members, Kassem has skin cancer and diabetes, and his health is deteriorating.

“I’m so afraid that he will get worse and worse, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Eman Kassem, Moustafa Kassem’s sister.

Two weeks after Kassem’s detention, Egyptian prosecutors charged him with protesting with intent to cause chaos and overthrow the government, collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood — the now-banned Islamist group that led Egypt’s first and last democratic government, before the coup — and spreading false news. (Kassem’s family denies all the charges.) He is being prosecuted alongside over 700 other defendants in one of a number of mass trials Egyptian officials have overseen since the 2013 military coup as part of an effort to stamp out dissent.

Over four years later, however, Kassem has not been convicted. His trial has been delayed over 40 times. And his lawyer says Egyptian prosecutors have presented no specific evidence tying him to the crimes he is charged with — a common defect of these mass trials.

“There’s no way to prove whether or not they were or weren’t there,” said Brad Youngblood, a research assistant at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington think tank. “The state cannot prove it, their lawyer cannot disprove it, and they’re in this sort of legal limbo until the executive decides that it’s politically useful for them to be let out of prison.”

Members of Egyptian security forces stand guard outside one of the gate of the Tora prison where former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is detained on August 21, 2013 in Cairo, Egypt.  Mubarak will be released from jail if no new charges are brought against him, an interior ministry official said on August 21, 2013 after a court order him freed.  AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA        (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of Egyptian security forces stand guard outside one of the gate of the Tora prison on Aug. 21, 2013, in Cairo.

Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

As Kassem spends his days in Tora prison in southern Cairo, where he was transferred about seven months into his detention, his family and advocates are busy trying to get the attention of lawmakers and, most importantly, the White House.

According to Ahmed, Kassem was routinely beaten up in jail during the beginning of his detention in an effort to make him confess to the charges. Even more dangerously for Kassem, his insulin pump was taken away when he was first arrested. Kassem managed to survive for the first few months by eating little and taking sugar control pills that jail officers allowed in.

The family, however, has managed to stop the abuse and get Kassem medical help, thanks to their communication with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., Kassem’s representative in Congress. As soon as Ahmed got back to New York, in September 2013, he got in touch with King’s office. Staffers there, in turn, contacted the U.S. embassy in Cairo about Kassem’s situation. About five months after Kassem was arrested, U.S. officials brought Kassem his insulin pump, according to Ahmed. The U.S. embassy’s involvement also seems to have halted the beatings.

Embassy officials have continued to monitor Kassem’s case. “The Department of State takes seriously its responsibilities to assist U.S. citizens abroad,” a State Department official told The Intercept, speaking anonymously in keeping with department protocol. “We are aware of media reports on the arrest of Mustafa Kassem in Egypt. When a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, the Department works to provide all appropriate consular assistance.”

The State Department, however, can only do so much without a fully staffed embassy in Cairo or Near East Affairs bureau in Washington. Trump has not appointed an ambassador to Egypt, nor has he appointed a permanent assistant secretary for Near East Affairs — a situation that leaves a diminished diplomatic apparatus that can undercut U.S. leverage in meetings with Egyptian counterparts.

“It’s like going to do diplomatic battle with one hand tied behind your back, because most other governments, and this would certainly be true of Egypt, look to those positions as people with some kind of credibility and political standing in the American system that they can do business with and talk to,” said Thomas Melia, a former senior State Department official who served in the Obama administration.

Acting secretaries and ambassadors “aren’t seen by the foreign governments as the serious people that they should be,” said Melia, and as a result, Egypt will take these officials less seriously when raising the cases of American citizens in jail.

Advocates for American prisoners in Egypt, in addition to pressing the State Department, have been working the halls of Congress — and have had some success there. Take Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American jailed after the 2013 military coup and released in May 2015.

In recent months, Soltan worked with the office of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to bring attention to the plight of Kassem and Ahmed Etiwy, another Egyptian-American arrested in August 2013. McCain sent a letter to Trump in August, writing that the imprisonment of Etiwy “seems to be part of a troubling crackdown on independent voices across Egypt over the past several years.” McCain, a critic of Egyptian authoritarianism, also raised Kassem’s case in an accompanying statement.

“President Trump must also demand the immediate release of the nearly 20 American citizens wrongly imprisoned in Egypt, including Ahmed Etwiy and Mustafa Kassem, who have been detained on false allegations [and] jailed for four years without sentencing,” McCain said. (Etiwy was convicted in September on charges of murder and sabotage of public property, among others — charges his family and lawyer reject. He was sentenced to five years, but including time served, will get out next August. Once released, he will have to check in with Egyptian police every day for five years.)

In addition to McCain’s intervention, 71 House members sent a letter to Pence in December, urging him to encourage Egyptian officials to “release any American citizens or Legal Permanent Residents who have been arbitrarily detained.”

On the other hand, Democratic New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who represent Kassem and Etiwy’s mothers, have been publically silent on the cases. Praveen Madhiraju, the U.S. lawyer for Kassem and Etiwy, has briefed their staffs, but the senators have not made any statements. (Schumer and Gillibrand’s offices did not return requests for comment.)

Aya Hijazi, center, a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen, is acquitted by an Egyptian court after nearly three years of detention over accusations related to running a foundation dedicated to helping street children, Cairo, Sunday,  April 16, 2017. Egyptian authorities arrested Hijazi, her husband and six others in May 2014 on charges of abusing children in her care and engaging in human trafficking, kidnapping, sexual exploitation and torture. (AP Photo/Mohamed el Raai)

Aya Hijazi, center, a dual U.S.-Egyptian citizen, is acquitted by an Egyptian court after nearly three years of detention over accusations related to running a foundation dedicated to helping street children, Cairo, Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Photo: Mohamed el Raai/AP

To get Kassem and the other Egyptian-Americans out of jail now, the families need more than a congressional intervention. They need the White House to intervene on a sustained basis.

“Public statements from other high-level officials, whether it’s the vice president or secretary of state, [is] sufficient to create a public push for releasing them,” said Andrew Miller, the former State Department official, who is now a deputy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. But “unless President Trump personally engages with the Egyptians and makes clear he wants it to happen, the Egyptians won’t view it as the high priority as it should be.”

The power of White House intervention was demonstrated in April. When Sisi, the Egyptian president, visited Washington, Trump brought up the case of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker jailed in May 2014, on what were widely seen as bogus charges of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Hijazi was freed three weeks after the Sisi-Trump meeting.

“I really would appreciate it if you would look into this and let her out,” Trump said he told Sisi.

Hijazi’s April release initially buoyed the hopes of the families of other Egyptian-American detainees. Those hopes dimmed as the months passed by, and their relatives remained in jail.

However, Pence’s January 20 comments may mean that the White House, after a year of ignoring calls to raise the plight of the imprisoned Americans in Egypt, is getting serious about the detainees.

“We really want to thank Vice President Pence,” said Madhiraju, the lawyer for Etiwy and Kassem, “but there’s still work to be done before they come home. Ahmed and Moustafa are still in jail. And President Sisi didn’t guarantee anything; he just said he’ll look into the issues. So they’re not home. We need to keep pushing until both Ahmed and Moustafa are home.”

Top photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meets with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Presidential Palace in the capital Cairo on Jan. 20, 2018.

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