By Simon Lewis and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO -The United States will continue to encourage Egypt to take steps on human rights, including freeing more political prisoners and guaranteeing freedom of expression, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Cairo on Monday.
After talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Blinken told reporters that Egypt had taken “important strides” protecting religious freedoms, empowering women and releasing some prisoners.
“But the concerns that we have remain and in the spirit of candour and the spirit of the partnership we have, we expressed those very clearly,” Blinken said, adding that he had raised the cases of individual prisoners.
The U.S. official arrived in Cairo on Sunday on a three-day regional tour that coincides with an escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Blinken said he wanted to strengthen Washington’s strategic partnership with Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. military aid that has helped mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past.
Under Sisi, who as army chief led the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, there has been a long crackdown on political dissent that has swept up liberal critics as well as Islamists.
Rights groups say tens of thousands have been detained, with many held in pre-trial detention for long periods.
In recent months, Egypt has released some prominent political prisoners amid steps to address international criticism, though many others remain behind bars and new arrests have been made.
Reforms to pre-trial detention and other law enforcement practices, and protecting the work of civil society, were among the areas where Washington would seek “concrete progress”, Blinken said.
The United States has withheld small amounts of military aid to Cairo, citing a failure to meet human rights conditions, and advocacy groups have pushed for more to be held back.
While in Egypt, Blinken met a group of activists including prominent campaigner Hossam Bahgat.
“He was already well aware of the magnitude of Egypt’s human rights crisis and that many more new political prisoners are detained than those the regime claims to be pardoning,” Bahgat told Reuters after meeting Blinken.
“I think the Biden administration now accepts that two years of engaging Sisi on human rights have not led to much improvement.”
Sisi has argued that security measures over the past decade were needed to stabilise Egypt and that authorities are protecting rights, including by working to provide basic needs such as housing and jobs.
Blinken’s meeting with Sisi also addressed regional issues including attempts to relaunch a political transition in Sudan and to break the deadlock between rival factions in Libya, according to a statement from U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price.