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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 21, 2017 1:00 am

Aid worker jailed in Egypt back in US

Trump's 'discreet diplomacy' wins release

Washington Post

An Egyptian American charity worker who was imprisoned in Cairo for three years and became the global face of Egypt's brutal crackdown on civil society returned home to the United States late Thursday after the Trump administration quietly negotiated her release.

President Donald Trump and his aides worked for several weeks with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to secure the freedom of Aya Hijazi, 30, a U.S. citizen, as well as her husband, Mohamed Hassanein, who is Egyptian, and four other humanitarian workers.

Trump dispatched a U.S. government aircraft to Cairo to bring Hijazi and her family to Washington.

Hijazi, who grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, and graduated from George Mason University, was working in Cairo with the Belady Foundation, which she and her husband established as a haven and rehabilitation center for street children.

The couple and their co-workers had been incarcerated since May 1, 2014, on child abuse and trafficking charges that were widely dismissed by human rights workers and U.S. officials as false. Virtually no evidence was presented against them, and for nearly three years they were held as hearings were inexplicably postponed and trial dates canceled. Rights groups alleged they were abused in detention.

The Obama administration unsuccessfully pressed Sissi's government for their release. It was not until Trump moved to reset U.S. relations with Egypt by embracing Sissi at the White House on April 3 – he publicly hailed the autocrat's leadership as “fantastic” and offered the U.S. government's “strong backing” – that Egypt's posture changed. Last Sunday, a court in Cairo dropped all charges against Hijazi and the others.

A senior administration official said that no quid pro quo had been offered for Hijazi's release but that there had been “assurance from the highest levels (of Sissi's government) that whatever the verdict was, Egypt would use presidential authority to send her home.”

The official said the U.S. side interpreted that to mean that a guilty verdict and sentencing would be followed by a pardon from Sissi, but they were pleasantly surprised.

The senior Trump administration official said the agreement for Hijazi's release was the product of Trump's “discreet diplomacy” – meaning the president's efforts to cultivate warm relations with strongmen such as Sissi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in part by avoiding public pronouncements on human rights that might alienate the foreign governments.

Former Obama administration officials expressed skepticism that Sissi got nothing from Trump in exchange for Hijazi's freedom.

“The robust praise and support the president has given to Sissi, which stands in some contrast to what we did, had to have some price, and maybe this is it,” said Antony Blinken, who worked on the Hijazi case as deputy secretary of state. “At least it's a positive development in which everyone can take some satisfaction.”