Dozens of members of the Egyptian diaspora in the United States are gathering in Washington, DC, this week to develop strategies to push members of Congress to support freedom and human rights in Egypt.
The two-day training, dubbed Egypt Advocacy Day, will bring about 60 delegates from 30 different states to the US capital on Monday and Tuesday, said Mohamed Soltan, one of the event organisers.
“We hope that we can bring folks together outside of Egypt, in the diaspora … to be the voice of those that can’t have one, or [for whom] the cost of having a voice is simply too much to bear,” Soltan told Al Jazeera via telephone.
Soltan founded The Freedom Initiative, a US-based non-profit group co-organising the event, in late 2015 to advocate on behalf of political prisoners in Egypt, who human rights groups say now number in the tens of thousands.
A citizen of both Egypt and the US, Soltan was jailed in 2013 by the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which accused him of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Soltan returned to the US after being released from prison in 2015. He spent more than a year on hunger strike while in prison.
“Instead of feeling helpless and not knowing what to do, we can use democratic mechanisms, and we can pressure elected officials to pressure Egypt to better its human rights record,” Soltan said, about the role the diaspora can play in pushing for greater freedoms in Egypt.
More than 100 meetings have been scheduled as part of this week’s event, he said, including with members of the US Senate and Congress and the US Department of State.
Participants will also attend information seminars with experts on US foreign policy vis-a-vis Egypt.
“Egypt is heading [down] this route where there is a complete crushing of any public or political space,” Soltan said.
He added that he hoped the event would succeed in “mobilising and organising the Egyptian diaspora” and “correcting the narrative on Egypt”.
The event is co-organised by the Belady Foundation, a group helping Egyptian street children that was founded by Aya Hijazi, a dual US-Egyptian citizen who was jailed in Egypt for over three years.
Hijazi was released from prison and returned to the US in April 2017 after a Cairo court acquitted her of human trafficking, a charge human rights groups said was fabricated.
‘Human rights crisis’
Human rights groups have accused the Sisi government – which came to power following a 2013 coup – of cracking down on freedom of speech and assembly, carrying out arbitrary arrests and detaining civil society leaders.
“Egypt’s human rights crisis continued unabated” last year, Amnesty International said in its 2017-2018 report.
The Egyptian authorities “used torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance against hundreds of people”, the rights group said, while “mass unfair trials” targeting peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights workers “were routine”.
At least 20 journalists were behind bars in Egypt at the end of last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, making the country one of the world’s three worst jailers of journalists.
Last year, the US announced it was delaying or cutting some aid to Egypt over human rights concerns.
This week’s advocacy training in the US also comes a few weeks ahead of the Egyptian presidential elections, which are set for the end of March.
Analysts have accused el-Sisi, who is seeking a second term as president, of making it impossible for any political opponents to challenge him at the polls. A handful of presidential hopefuls have dropped out of the race since the start of the year.
El-Sisi was elected president of Egypt with 97 percent support in 2014.
A year earlier, the former Egyptian army chief led a coup that deposed his democratically-elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.