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Blinken seeks detainee progress, but releases are Egypt’s ‘prerogative’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Al-Monitor he raised the cases of individual political prisoners during his two-day visit to Cairo, which included a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Blinken and Shoukry in Cairo

CAIRO — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a visit to Cairo on Monday to raise with Egyptian officials the cases of prominent political prisoners and push for “concrete progress” on human rights.

“With regard to human rights individual cases, I have raised in the past and again, raised today, individual [cases]. That's important. So too though is progress on systemic change," Blinken said during a press conference alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

Prior to his meeting with Shoukry, Blinken met for more than an hour with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the presidential palace on Monday.  

Under Sisi's watch, Egypt is believed to have jailed tens of thousands of perceived government critics on charges rights groups say are baseless. They include prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim.

Asked why Cairo hadn’t heeded calls for their release, Blinken told Al-Monitor, “I can't answer for you why the government does or does not do certain things. Those are its prerogatives.”

Human rights violations in the North African country have complicated the US relationship with Egypt, which the Biden administration views as a key counterterrorism partner and important regional mediator in conflicts between Israel and Gaza-based militants.  

The State Department announced in September it would withhold some but not all of Egypt’s annual security aid that Congress had conditioned on the Egyptian government carrying out certain human rights improvements.

In defending that decision, US officials pointed to the government’s creation of a national dialogue with the opposition, the work of its presidential pardon committee and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

On Monday, Blinken highlighted “the important strides” Egypt has made on human rights, pointing to protections for religious freedom and the empowerment of women.

"We continue to encourage the Egyptian government take further actions to pursue concrete progress, including further releases of prisoners, reforms to pretrial detention and other law enforcement practices protecting the central work of civil society," he said. 

But nongovernmental organizations say the number of new arrests has outpaced prisoner releases. According to “Till The Last Prisoner," a campaign led by independent rights organizations, 185 arrests and 94 releases were reported to rights groups in January. 

Ahead of his meetings with Sisi and Shoukry, Blinken met with Egyptian civil society members and leading human rights defenders for a discussion of their “critical work to advance fundamental freedoms in Egypt,” the State Department said in a readout.

Blinken and Sisi also discussed de-escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, stalled elections in war-torn Libya, the political process in Sudan and the deteriorating economic situation in Egypt, according to the department. Blinken also stressed US support for a diplomatic resolution to Egypt and Sudan's dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

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