“It’s a hostage negotiation and it has been all along,” said Sherif Mansour, describing the arrest of his cousin Reda Abdel-Rahman by Egyptian security forces last August as an attempt to intimidate Mansour into silence.
Abdel-Rahman has been imprisoned without trial for nine months. Mansour, an outspoken human rights advocate in Washington with the Committee to Protect Journalists, has since learned that he and his father are listed on the same charge sheet, all accused of joining a terrorist group and spreading “false news”.
Mansour is one of a growing number of activists, dissidents and analysts angry at the US administration’s suddenly warm relations with Egypt. They point to Egyptian officials’ escalating threats against critics living in exile in the US, including arresting their family members or contacts in Egypt, many of whom are imprisoned like Abdel-Rahman on spurious charges.
Twelve members of Mansour’s family have been detained and interrogated by Egyptian security agents since Abdel-Rahman’s detention.
“They ask about us, when we last spoke to them, what we spoke about,” Mansour said. “They go through their phones – and if they don’t provide passwords they’re beaten in order to find anything that connects them to us, including Facebook conversations.
“It’s why we haven’t been in touch: I’ve stopped talking to my family in order not to give them any reason to harass them,” he said.
Joe Biden and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, held their first official call in late May, four months after Biden took office. As a candidate, Biden promised that there would be “no blank checks” for the man Donald Trump once addressed as “my favourite dictator”. Yet when they spoke, the two leaders discussed human rights in terms of a “constructive dialogue” and “reaffirmed their commitment to a strong and productive US-Egypt partnership”, according to the White House.
This followed Egyptian mediation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including a recent rare public visit by the Egyptian intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, travelling to Cairo – the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.
HA Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank, said: “The latest crisis in the Palestinian occupied territories and the Israeli bombardment reminded DC of a very clear and present reality: that there is no capital in the region that has direct and workable relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank other than Cairo.”
Biden’s administration capped his warm exchange with the Egyptian president with a decision to request $1.38bn (£1bn) in annual military aid for Egypt – the maximum amount possible.
A coalition of human rights groups expressed “strong disappointment” at the administration’s decision. “President Biden campaigned on ‘no more blank checks’ for Egypt’s regime, but requesting the same amount the United States has provided annually since 1987 despite Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record is, effectively, another blank check,” they said.
Mansour agreed. “They abandoned the rhetoric calling publicly on Egypt to respect human rights by agreeing to this ‘constructive dialogue’,” he said. “It makes my blood boil to hear this term in many ways. Not just because it’s a repetition of what we as Egyptians, and the United States, have heard from all previous dictators, but it also underscores how naive and timid this administration is when it comes to Egypt.”
Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has overseen the broadest crackdown on dissent and free speech in Egypt’s recent history. Tens of thousands remain behind bars for their political views or for activities as benign as a Facebook comment; Egypt’s prisons are at double their capacity, according to Amnesty International.
The Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights organisation founded by the Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan, has tracked the increasing numbers of arrests of family members of outspoken Egyptians in exile abroad. It said that threatening phone calls and even physical intimidation were now regularly used against Egyptian dissidents worldwide.
“They said they could hire someone here in the States to go after me,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, an influencer and dissident now in exile in the US. Mahdy described how his family members were detained earlier this year as a way to stop him speaking out against the Egyptian government on social media; his father remains in detention. The threats against Mahdy escalated to menacing phone calls from someone purporting to be an Egyptian intelligence agent after he openly discussed his family members’ arrests.
The Freedom Initiative described what it termed “hostage-taking tactics” involving five American citizens whose families were detained in Egypt in order to silence their activism in the US. In addition, it found more than a dozen cases of US citizens or residents whose close relatives were detained in Egypt last year, although it believes the true number to be far higher.
It added that one US citizen was warned against speaking to US lawmakers on their release from detention in Egypt, and told that doing so would result in harm to their family.
Yet US law contains mechanisms to curb cooperation with countries that threaten US citizens and dissidents abroad. These include the Leahy law, which stops the US funding foreign security forces that violate human rights; the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to sanction human rights abusers and prevent them from entering the US; and the “Khashoggi ban”, curbing visas for those engaged in anti-dissident activities.
The White House did not initially respond when contacted for comment on this issue. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told a congressional hearing this week that “I think we’ve seen some progress in some areas” of human rights in Egypt, but that “when it comes to freedom of expression, when it comes to civil society, there are very significant problems that we need to address directly with our Egyptian partners – and we are. So we hope and expect to see progress there.”
US-based activists expressed disappointment at lawmakers’ reluctance to employ sanctions against Egyptian officials, who they say more than qualify for punitive measures.
“The fact that Egypt feels it can get away with taking citizens hostage, and so far it did, will continue to be a stain on the Biden administration,” said Mansour.
The British government presented a vehemently anti-abortion former US envoy with an award for his services to freedom of religion just days before watering down a statement on gender equality to remove commitments to reproductive rights.
Sam Brownback, a former governor of Kansas who targeted abortion rights while in office and then became Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was given the award during the international ministerial conference for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) held in London last month.
Organised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and opened by the Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss, the gathering has since become engulfed in controversy after a statement signed by more than 20 countries was quietly removed from the FCDO website and significantly edited.
It has now emerged that a number of participants to the conference, which Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, was involved in organising, are known for their strong anti-abortion views.
Three, including one speaker, were from ADF International, the global wing of a US legal advocacy organisation considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which monitors extremist groups in the US.
Founded by leaders of the Christian right, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long opposed abortion. It writes on its website: “In 2022, the pro-life movement achieved what was thought impossible by many: the overturning of Roe v Wade. But there’s more work to be done.”
Other participants were from the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), a rightwing thinktank based in Washington DC, which, alongside the ADF, is pushing for more laws protecting anti-choice medics from performing “procedures in violation of their conscience”, from abortion to gender transition surgery.
Ján Figel, a former EU special envoy for FoRB, was among the speakers. Figel’s mandate was not renewed in 2020 after a group of pro-choice MEPs complained he had “undermined [the mandate’s] credibility … by showing highly problematic acquaintances with organisations opposing women’s sexual rights and LGBTI people’s rights.”
Figel said the MEPs’ criticism had been rooted in “false arguments … based on lies”, and added that he had nothing to do with the statement.
It is understood that Brownback, who received warm applause at the London conference, was given the award by the UK government in conjunction with the Dutch special envoy for FoRB, Jos Douma, in recognition of their work on FoRB around the world.
While in office, Brownback signed a number of pieces of anti-choice legislation. Last week, he bemoaned the decisive victory of pro-choice campaigners in a Kansas referendum on abortion, adding: “We fight on defending all life, mother and child, from beginning to end.”
According to one participant at the London conference, who requested anonymity: “The UK government says it advocates ‘freedom of religion or belief for all’. But some of those featured and celebrated at the ministerial don’t support this. What they do instead is use their ‘religious freedom’ as an excuse to trample the rights and freedoms of others. People like Sam Brownback and the ADF, who seek to take away others’ freedom of choice in this way, should be challenged, not celebrated.”
The conference is an annual gathering that began in the US during Trump’s presidency. This year it was held on 5-6 July.
Its agenda was centred on how to “protect and promote freedom of religion or belief internationally”, with topics ranging from the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China to the terrorist attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria discussed by academics, analysts, politicians and faith leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
But its aftermath has been controversial, since it emerged that its statement on FoRB and gender equality had been edited to remove commitments to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy”. The FCDO initially said it had made the changes to focus on key FoRB issues and to achieve a broader consensus of signatories.
Tariq Ahmad, a Foreign Office minister and former FoRB special envoy, said last week the statement had been edited to become “more inclusive of all perspectives and views” and “to allow for a constructive exchange of views on all issues”.
However, the watering-down of the statement, which had been painstakingly worked on and signed by more than 20 countries, provoked anger in a number of governments, many of which are refusing to sign the modified version. It currently has eight signatories, including Malta, where abortion is illegal, and the UK.
It is understood that the pushback on the gender equality statement began the day after the conference, at a “next steps” meeting at Lancaster House, convened by Bruce. Among those present were Jim Shannon, of the Democratic Unionist party, and David Alton, a crossbench peer, who were also conference speakers.
Rachael Clarke, chief of staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the vast majority of British people saw through the “fiction” that there was significant opposition in the UK to abortion rights. But words mattered, she added, which was why there was concern over the conference statement.
“I think what we’ve really seen when it comes to abortion rights is the power of words and the power of the direction that governments are moving [in] … I think what we really are concerned about seeing is any indication from this government or the next government that they are valuing women’s reproductive rights as less than where they are currently,” she said.
Clarke added that, with Bruce as special envoy, it would have been hard for the government to put out a statement on freedom of belief that was not inclusive of “incredibly anti-abortion views”. “[Bruce] is the most anti-abortion MP in the House of Commons.”
A spokesperson for Brownback said he had no involvement in drafting the conference statement or in organising the event. Brownback was “proud to be pro-life”, a stance that is “immaterial to his support for freedom of religion or belief”, he added.
“Ambassador Brownback has not tried to connect his support of unborn human life to the issue of religious freedom … Ambassador Brownback believes that anyone can support FoRB regardless of their position on abortion. At a time when people are being killed and persecuted for what they choose to believe, Ambassador Brownback believes that the FoRB movement best moves forward by focusing on FoRB and not diverging into non-FoRB issues.”
The ADF denies the accusation it espouses hate, accusing the SPLC of besmirching “huge swaths of well-respected, mainstream, conservative America” in that categorisation of its beliefs.
A spokesperson said: “As the world’s largest organisation committed to protecting religious freedom, ADF International were proud to take part in the ministerial. Our current projects include defending girls in south-east Asia who have been abducted, forcibly married, and ‘converted’ from their faith; challenging the Russian authorities for prohibiting church communities from gathering to worship; and supporting those on death row for ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan to escape to safety in Europe. We believe in the equality and dignity of all people.”
Nathan Berkeley, communications director of the RFI, said the thinktank worked to advance religious freedom throughout the globe and to defend those of all faiths who were persecuted.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “We invited experts and representatives from a wide range of different fields and beliefs to the conference in the spirit of fostering positive discussion and collaboration on issues of freedom of religion or belief.”
Bruce, Alton and Shannon did not respond to requests for comment.
Following the highly controversial FBI raid on the property of Donald Trump, many US conservatives and members of the Republican Party expressed their indignation on social media, reiterating claims that the former president had been unfairly targeted by the agency for political purposes.And while the White House said it had no idea about the raid, and President Joe Biden refused to comment on what happened at all, many noted law enforcement officers have never visited either Biden’s son Hunter or his partners regarding his purportedly rather dubious international business dealings.But here’s the mystery, why did the FBI need to take the unprecedented step of invading the home of the former president? Reports say the agency took documents and boxes in the raid, likely the same ones the National Archives were looking for that Trump’s team allegedly took from Washington last year. Conservatives, on the other hand, recalled another scandal involving the misuse of confidential data and recklessness by a high-ranking official – Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state – and her infamous lost and leaked emails. Back then, Clinton set up her own email server instead of using the government-issued one because it allegedly offered her complete control over her correspondence. And, not surprisingly, her staffers purportedly deleted some emails that, by law, were supposed to go to the archives.A 2016 FBI inquiry found that while Clinton and her staffers handled sensitive information with “extreme carelessness,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a criminal case against her.Well, while they’re looking into the former president’s boxes at Mar-a-Lago, we can all hope that maybe the FBI will soon be able to find the time to not only recover Hillary’s lost emails, but also determine the coordinates of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site – that is if they’re not too busy, of course.
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On Monday, the FBI, for the first time in history, conducted a search of the home of a former president, which took place at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. After the raid, Trump issued a statement denouncing the incident and accusing the US court system of using it as a weapon against him.
Following the highly controversial FBI raid on the property of Donald Trump, many US conservatives and members of the Republican Party expressed their indignation on social media, reiterating claims that the former president had been unfairly targeted by the agency for political purposes.
And while the White House said it had no idea about the raid, and President Joe Biden refused to comment on what happened at all, many noted law enforcement officers have never visited either Biden’s son Hunter or his partners regarding his purportedly rather dubious international business dealings.
But here’s the mystery, why did the FBI need to take the unprecedented step of invading the home of the former president? Reports say the agency took documents and boxes in the raid, likely the same ones the National Archives were looking for that Trump’s team allegedly took from Washington last year.
Conservatives, on the other hand, recalled another scandal involving the misuse of confidential data and recklessness by a high-ranking official – Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state – and her infamous lost and leaked emails. Back then, Clinton set up her own email server instead of using the government-issued one because it allegedly offered her complete control over her correspondence. And, not surprisingly, her staffers purportedly deleted some emails that, by law, were supposed to go to the archives.
A 2016 FBI inquiry found that while Clinton and her staffers handled sensitive information with “extreme carelessness,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a criminal case against her.
Well, while they’re looking into the former president’s boxes at Mar-a-Lago, we can all hope that maybe the FBI will soon be able to find the time to not only recover Hillary’s lost emails, but also determine the coordinates of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site – that is if they’re not too busy, of course.
Political meddling is just one of the many headaches that Western automakers endure in China. In July, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares blamed interference by the Chinese government for the cancellation of the Jeep-maker’s joint venture in the world’s largest auto market. But local car manufacturers may pose a bigger threat to foreign companies as they continue to grab a larger share of the Chinese market.
For decades, the world’s large car manufacturers had to establish onerous joint ventures with local companies to establish a foothold in China. Beijing hoped that this strategy would transform inefficient local partners into industry leaders. But the policy failed – the local companies failed to develop export markets, and even the most patriotic Chinese consumers preferred to buy cars made by Nissan, General Motors and Volkswagen. By 2000, the German company had claimed more than 50% of the Chinese market.
Now, as China relaxes its international joint venture requirements, local competitors are stepping on the gas. In 2021, foreign automakers saw their combined share of the Chinese auto market shrink to 45.6%, and Volkswagen’s market share dropped to 15.5% in the first half of 2022.
Two factors are driving the growing competitiveness of Chinese automakers. The growing pool of domestic technical talent has fed the growth of thriving, privately-owned vehicle manufacturers such as BYD, Geely (which owns Volvo) and Great Wall Motor. China now has a competent group of manufacturers of conventional, mid-range passenger vehicles that can lure foreign designers away from the likes of BMW and the Italian design firm, Pininfarina.
The second factor is Beijing’s push to outpace the West in manufacturing electric vehicles. In 2021, 3.3 million hybrid and battery-powered cars were registered in China, accounting for 16% of total sales. Meanwhile, European consumers bought 1.1 million fewer electric vehicles. McKinsey consultants say that the Chinese companies are able to manufacture safe auto bodies that are lighter than those built by their international rivals. The Chinese also have local access to cutting-edge battery expertise from global leaders such as Amperex Technology, valued at $194 billion.
Tesla is currently the only foreign automaker that has succeeded in claiming a spot on the list of China’s top 10 best-selling electric vehicles. Research firm Redburn estimates that Volkswagen now has only 10.8% of China’s electric vehicle market, although the $89 billion company is planning to launch new models and is investing in research and sales centers.
The increasing competitiveness of Chinese automakers has impacts beyond its borders, as they continue to reinvest profits to take on Western giants in other markets. BYD, the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese automaker that is challenging Tesla for the title of the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, shipped its first lot of 1,000 SUVs – the ATTO 3 – to Australia in August. As more Chinese cars start showing up on Western roads, complaints about political meddling by the Chinese government will surely grow louder.