Aya Hijazi

Aya Hijazi the Egyptian-American aid worker and her colleagues were released after three years in detention.

In May 2014, eight individuals were arrested following a raid on a charity organization’s center in Cairo. Belady Foundation, where they were working, is a charity for street children in Egypt. Four months later, they were charged with sexual exploitation of children, human trafficking, and ‘using children for protests’. Prior to this, no reason for their arrest had been given. They were put behind bars, their rights merited no explanation. An examination of the children cared for by the organization found no evidence of sexual abuse.

The arrest was part of an ongoing crackdown by President Sisi’s regime on NGOs and civil society in general.

Their hearings were delayed seven times, for no conclusive reason. Pre-trial beyond two years is illegal under Egyptian law, and her trial was found to be unconstitutional, but that was never a problem for the authoritarian regimes that have plagued Egypt’s political arena for decades.

Aya Hijazi, the founder of the organization along with her husband Mohamed Hassanein, is one of the thousands detained without trial, and on suspicious grounds.

Hijazi and her colleagues were released on Sunday of last week as supporters and activists cheered and celebrated. Many have been imprisoned under suspicious and unproven allegations, but Hijazi’s case was amongst those with national and international high-profile campaigns for release.

After three years in the horrendous conditions of Egyptian prisons, the group was allowed to walk out of the court free, finally able to enjoy open skies and the bright Cairene sunshine. They had been punished because they dared to highlight and address the serious shortcomings of the Egyptian State, and the terrible human and children’s rights violations street children face on the streets of Cairo. Their crime was that they were active members of civil society, and in Sisi’s Egypt it is a grave one.

Aya Hijazi met with President Trump on the 21 April, one day after she returned to the US to reunite with her parents.

On that day, in a Press Briefing attended by the Pavlovic Today, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that President Trump had “directly engaged behind the scenes on her behalf and made it clear to the Egyptian government how important it was to him that this American be released and returned”.

Such negotiations took place during President Sisi’s visit to the White House on the 3rd of April of this year. Secretary Spicer said that the President had “discussed the issue privately with President Sisi” during the visit. When asked by a reporter for more “behind-the-scenes” on getting Aya Hijazi home from Egypt, Secretary Spicer said that he could not provide details at this point, but that the administration had “obviously very productive and helpful discussions that resulted in her being able to come back to the United States”.

Aya Hijazi is a hero who suffered honorably, and for unjust reasons, for believing in an Egypt changed for the better. She has continuously supported her colleagues who had been imprisoned with her and demanded their justice alongside her own.

The world was (rightly) outraged on her behalf. The powerful American administrations of both former president Obama and President Trump worked extensively to pressure for her release. When asked how President Trump worked with human rights organizations, Secretary Spicer said “I think this was handled primarily through diplomatic channels” as “the [American] national security team in particular” worked with “folks in the el-Sisi government”.

Through what platforms can the parents of  Guilio Regini be heard?

But through which channels do the prisoners without a dual-citizenship negotiate their freedom? Through what platforms can the parents of the Egyptian Guilio Regini be heard? Regini, an innocent, young Italian Cambridge University student conducting research in Cairo was seriously tortured, captured, and later found killed in February 2016. His story is heart-breaking, his crime non-existent, his human rights violated in so many different ways. His story has not changed the decades-long practices of police brutality or the iron fist of the state and its existence outside the law.

Human rights organizations estimate that as many as 60,000 political prisoners now fill the cells of Egypt’s jails. The regime has built 16 more prisons to accommodate this. Some have adopted the phrase “Generation Jail” to describe political activists of all sorts and occupations (journalists, students, even social media users). The emergency law which was triggered following the horrendous terrorist attacks on Coptic churches will likely make matters worse.

Hegazy and her colleagues are finally free. However, the future of others like her remains unknown. As you read this, innocent prisoners are trapped and squeezed in cold, dark, uninhabitable cells. Some are taken away without their families’ knowledge. To his Egyptian citizens, the path President Sisi has chosen to take seems bleak.

For now, Aya knows why the caged bird sings.

Mona Elkateb is a Foreign Policy expert with a regional specialty in the Middle East. She is currently pursuing MSc degree in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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