When Egypt’s first and only elected president, Mohamed Mursi, dropped dead in a courtroom last week, official Washington barely noticed.
President Donald Trump was focused on the crisis in Iran. His administration has made clear that autocratic allies like Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will not be shamed and cajoled for how they treat their dissidents. Besides, Mursi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Trump administration has considered designating as a terrorist organization.
Mursi’s death, however, should be a wake-up call, particularly for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a letter to Pompeo, a bipartisan group of Egypt experts says that Mursi’s death was likely a result of the poor conditions of his incarceration.
"Not only was Mursi kept in prolonged total isolation and allowed only three family visits over six years," reads the letter from the Working Group on Egypt. "Prison officials denied him medical treatment for diabetes as well as kidney and liver conditions."
Indeed, a British parliamentary investigation warned more than a year ago that Mursi may die as a result of his treatment in prison.
And while it may be easy for the Trump administration to dismiss this kind of advocacy from human-rights groups, the working group is different. Until this year, Elliott Abrams, who currently serves as Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, was a member.
Sadly, Mursi is hardly the only Egyptian prisoner suffering through gulag-like conditions. As the letter says, "while Mursi’s treatment was notably cruel, it was not unusual."
Of the 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt’s overcrowded jails, many lack basic sanitation, the letter says. Higher-profile prisoners often endure months, and sometimes years, of solitary confinement.
It would be bad enough if El-Sisi’s prisons were filled only with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this treatment applies to a range of Egyptians with a wide variety of political views. Sami Anan, a former chief of staff to Egypt’s military who was arrested while running against El-Sisi in the 2018 election, has suffered a serious infection since his incarceration.
Hisham Geneina, a former state auditor who exposed corruption in the military, has been denied medical treatment for injuries sustained during a mob attack. There are thousands of similar cases, the letter says.
El-Sisi’s jails also hold American citizens. Mustafa Kassem, a U.S. businessman, was arrested when Egyptians were rounded up during the 2013 coup that initially brought El-Sisi to power. His initial crime, accordingto his brother-in-law, was that he handed over his U.S. passport to an Egyptian soldier, thinking it would protect him.
Instead, he was accused of being a spy.
As a diabetic with a heart condition, his family fears that his death is imminent if he remains in Egyptian jail.
If a state is going to imprison people, it owes them basic medical care.
This is as true for convicted criminals as it is for political prisoners, who should not be detained in the first place.
There is also a strong national interest reason that Pompeo and Trump should pressure El-Sisi to make his prisons more humane. Egypt’s modern dictators never know when their foes will strike.
But strike they always do. Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in a military coup. His successor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by disgruntled Islamists who had infiltrated the military. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, didn’t know that his military would defy his orders to use lethal force against the citizens who had gathered in Tahrir Square.
Amy Hawthorne, the research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a member of the working group, told me the cruel conditions of El-Sisi’s prisons could create a backlash: It "drives people underground, widening the base of people who have serious grievances against the regime."
Al Qaida’s current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was tortured in an Egyptian prison. His experience there has helped nurse his radicalism ever since.
El-Sisi may think he needs these dungeons to keep his enemies down.
But he’s only sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. Pompeo has an opportunity to remind him of his folly — and to take the kind of stand for democracy and human rights that should be the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for The Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.