Creating Time Bombs: How Abuse in Egypt’s Prison System Fuels ISIS Recruitment

Early hopes that the Biden administration would break from a decades-long U.S. practice of enabling Egyptian dictatorships are fading, with potentially catastrophic consequences for human rights.

While the new administration has committed to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy,” in the context of Egypt it appears to be adopting a traditional approach of mildly rebuking Cairo’s poor human rights record while plying the government with unconditional military and political support.

There is much to criticize in Egypt’s record, including most recently the reports that Egyptian intelligence officials assisted the Saudi Arabian killers of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The repression and abuse occurring in Egyptian prisons are worthy of particular focus, though, because they vividly highlight how the status quo not only threatens the rights and dignity of Egyptians but also foments radicalism and strengthens terrorist organizations. Human Rights First’s 2019 report Like a Fire in a Forest featured the testimony of prisoners released from Egyptian jails between 2015 and 2018, who recounted how the Islamic State (ISIS) was successfully recruiting inside Egypt’s prisons, including by promising to ensure tortured prisoners received better treatment while in detention and offering a means for revenge after their release.

This new report uses testimony from prisoners released between 2019 and 2021 to update the earlier research. These former prisoners gave Human Rights First credible, consistent reports of the reality inside Egypt’s prisons. Their testimony shows that ISIS recruitment is still ongoing, unchecked by Egyptian authorities and fueled in substantial part by the torture and other abuse that pervade Egyptian prisons. This recruitment is deeply alarming, but there is little public evidence that U.S. officials are taking action to persuade Egypt’s government to prevent it, and to end the torture and abuse in prisons.

The Biden administration should act urgently to break the cycle of abuse and extremism. Continuing business as usual – including the practice of sending over $1 billion in annual military aid to a series of repressive Egyptian governments – will not change the behavior of Egyptian authorities or end the policies that fuel violent extremism. While the U.S. relationship with Egypt is an important one, the U.S. government has the policy tools to credibly press for change without breaking that partnership. Indeed, Congress has repeatedly pressed some of these tools into the U.S. government’s reluctant hands, specifically making clear that U.S. security assistance to Egypt should depend at least in part on whether the country’s human rights record improves, and also creating targeted sanctions authorities that could be used to insist on accountability in egregious cases of abuse.

The Biden administration has an opportunity in Egypt to show it will apply its human rights commitments even where U.S. military allies are concerned. It should do so.


Published on July 15, 2021


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