- - Wednesday, August 30, 2017


News broke last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will deny Egypt almost $95 million in aid, two-thirds of which will come from its military aid package. This is an encouraging move — no previous administration has cut military aid to Egypt.

The State Department also announced that it will suspend an additional $195 million until “we see progress from Egypt on key priorities.” These priorities should include lifting restrictions on Egypt’s civil society, stopping attacks on human rights defenders, and ending prison abuse.

An Egyptian human rights activist recently released from prison described for me what he saw there. “Many in the cells with me had been given electric shocks in their mouth or on their genitals,” he said. “Or benzine put on their skin and set alight with the electric shock baton.” Then came the kicker: “After prisoners had been tortured, they were more open to hearing from ISIS.”

As part of his far-ranging crackdown on dissent, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has imprisoned thousands. His wholesale jailing of critics — and their brutal treatment — is fueling violent extremism. That’s the clear message from human rights activists I met in Egypt last month, who told me that ISIS is recruiting disaffected inmates.

Their warnings echo that of prominent Egyptian dissident Ahmed Maher, who has said, “Prison has really become a breeding ground for extremists. It has become a school for crime and terrorism.” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein concurs. “[T]he massive numbers of detentions, reports of torture, and continued arbitrary arrests — all of this we believe facilitates radicalization in prisons,” he said in May.

The activists I spoke to warned that a dynamic of abuse and humiliation in prisons is producing terrorists. This is nothing new in Egypt. In the 1980s, then-President Hosni Mubarak’s torture chambers helped cultivate terrorists. One was a doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri, later the operational brains behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and now the head of al Qaeda. Today, the human rights climate in Egypt is worse than it’s been in decades, and a new generation of terrorists is coming of age in the country’s packed prisons.

Egypt’s prisoners are a diverse lot that includes seasoned activists. Among the many thousands of prisoners, a non-trivial number of young, disaffected and brutalized men are vulnerable. The recently released activist, whom I’ve know for years, said some young prisoners are “easy prey for ISIS. The older guys are sort of immune to what ISIS says, but for the younger ones it’s a powerful appeal. The ISIS guys tell them, ‘You tried politics, elections, and it didn’t work,’ but many of the younger guys are susceptible.

“One ISIS guy who was there, I was scared of him. He used to talk to guys who weren’t members of the Muslim Brotherhood but who supported them. They were desperate for change, and he exploited that, telling them they needed to defend themselves. They had believed they could change things through the ballot box, but the ISIS guy was persuasive. He would say, ‘When you have an election, it’s my arguments against your arguments, but once a gun enters the equation you need your own gun to fight back.’ I saw many people attracted by this logic.”

If the Trump administration wants to help Egypt fight terrorism, it should tell its allies in Cairo that it will withhold the $195 million until it stops the mass jailing and torture of dissidents, allows criticism of the government, and makes other necessary reforms. Otherwise, the Egyptian government is simply continuing a policy that encourages the very terrorism it’s supposed to be fighting.

Brian Dooley is senior adviser at Human Rights First.

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