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Hunger-striking US activists demand Egypt halt politicised executions

Activists are staging a hunger strike near the UN, demanding Cairo halt the executions of 12 men, including some senior Muslim Brotherhood members
Medhat Mahmoud and Bahgat Saber stand in front of cutouts of twelve Egyptians currently at risk of execution (MEE/Zainab Iqbal)
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New York City

A group of American activists are staging a hunger strike near the United Nations headquarters in New York in an effort to publicly embarass and pressure Egypt into stopping politically motivated executions and death sentences.

Sitting on a set of beach chairs in the 32-degree Celsius heat, Medhat Mahmoud and Bahgat Saber told Middle East Eye they were in the 14th day of their hunger strike against the death sentence issued to 12 Egyptian activists, some of whom are senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last month, Egypt's highest appeals court upheld the death sentences, sparking an international outcry.

Human Rights Watch described the judgements as "a mockery of justice", while Amnesty International said the sentences were "a stain on the reputation of Egypt's highest appeals court and cast a dark shadow over the country's entire justice system". 

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The duo, who are coordinating with 22 others in London, said they were dismayed by the international community's response to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's brutal crackdown against the moderate Islamist group, and were urging the world body to intervene.

The pair told MEE that they had already submitted a letter to the UN, urging global diplomats to pressure Cairo into commuting the death sentences of the twelve men, and help save the lives of 68 others currently facing execution.

The activists singled out US lawmakers, in particular, for their reluctance to speak out against the incarceration of Egyptian activists, and their failure to pressure President Joe Biden into putting further conditions on aid to Egypt.

The US Congress has been imposing human rights conditions on $300m of the $1.3bn annual military aid to Egypt, but successive administrations have issued national security waivers to bypass the restrictions.

"America knows the human rights violations taking place in Egypt. America knows how many people were executed and how many people are in jail with no trial, but, it is still providing $1.3 billion in aid," Mahmoud told MEE.

"This money is going to shut every open mouth and cut every tongue, and we pay for it. If Biden wants to give aid, then he should give it from his own pocket. But he won't do that. 'Stop paying to kill people' is my message to Biden."

'Hunger-striking to save lives'

At the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, just a few blocks from the main UN building, Mahmoud and Saber showed MEE a small tent they had erected with cutouts of the twelve men currently at risk of execution.

The individuals were involved in the 2013 Rabaa Square sit-in protest against the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president.

The protest was violently dispersed in a massacre that Amnesty International has called a "horrific turning point for human rights in Egypt".

Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of protesters at Rabaa, and many more were prosecuted in relation to the sit-in.

Morsi died of a heart attack during a court session in June 2019. UN experts said the conditions in which he had been imprisoned may have directly led to his death, amounting to a "state-sanctioned killing".

Since coming to power after the 2013 coup, Sisi has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and moved to ban virtually all forms of political opposition, jailing thousands of dissidents.

"I am on a hunger strike to save lives. Not just those twelve, but thousands of people who will get hanged," Saber said.

"If we abandon these people, they [Egyptian authorities] will give them the death sentence. We are trying to put pressure on the UN to figure out anything to stop the killer from doing what he does every night."

'Walk the walk'

In the latest crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian court sentenced 21 of its members to death on Thursday.

The group had been charged with the killing of police officers in two separate cases.

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, Egypt was the world's third-most prolific executioner in 2020, with 107 executions. Many of those executed have been described by rights groups as "prisoners of conscience", detained over their opposition to the Sisi government. 

According to the Geneva-based Committee for Justice rights group, at least 92 Sisi opponents have been executed since 2013, and final death sentences have been issued for 64 others who may be executed at any moment.

Earlier this week, US Senator Chris Murphy delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor where he told the Biden administration that if it were serious about promoting human rights globally, then it must cut military aid to Egypt.

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"This year, the United States must withhold the $300 million in accordance with the law passed by this Congress," Murphy said. "It will send a message to Egypt that we're serious about reform - and maybe more importantly, it will send a message to the world that we are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk."

On the campaign trail, Biden had vowed to pursue a human rights-focused foreign policy, and as a candidate he specifically rebuked former President Donald Trump's friendly relationship with Sisi.

"No more blank checks for Trump’s 'favourite dictator'," Biden wrote in a tweet last year, referring to the Egyptian president.

Despite his pledges, the Biden administration is continuing to send US aid to Egypt without any conditions or restrictions, and US officials have lauded the Egyptian government for its role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza last month.

"Seeing this really hurts me. I see a lot of homeless people here who need shelters, but the US takes $1.3 billion to give to the General [President Sisi], not to Egyptians," Saber, one of the hunger strikers, told MEE.

"The US is supposed to be making shelters, better hospitals, better schools, but it's supporting executions."

Bahgat Saber makes the Rabaa sign, a hand symbol that was created after the violent clearing of protest sit-ins at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and al-Nahda Square (MEE/Zainab Iqbal)
Bahgat Saber makes the Rabaa sign, a hand symbol that was created after the violent clearing of protest sit-ins at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square and al-Nahda Square (MEE/Zainab Iqbal)