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Activists For Egyptian Political Prisoners Monitor Sisi's U.S. Visit


Today, Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be visiting the White House. And the people watching closely will include a young American who spent a year and a half in an Egyptian jail. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Two years ago, Ohio State graduate and American citizen Mohamed Soltan emerged from an Egyptian prison in terrible shape.

MOHAMED SOLTAN: We were blindfolded, tortured from time to time. I still have the cigarette burn scars on the back of my neck. And I still wake up - until today - wake up in the middle of the night frantically from just sounds of shaking keys or slamming doors or loud noises.

KELEMEN: Egyptian police shot him in the arm and arrested him in 2013 while he was live-tweeting protests against the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

Soltan's father served in that government and is still in jail. So too are tens of thousands of Egyptians from across the political spectrum. He says at least seven of them are Americans, though NPR has learned the number is closer to 20.

SOLTAN: Some of them were arrested before me. We got two New Yorkers that are still in there. They've been in there since August of 2013. The most recent one is a 17-year-old New Jersey minor who just got arrested last November.

KELEMEN: If Trump really wants an America-first agenda, he says, the U.S. should demand that the Egyptian president release those Americans as the U.S. did for him.

SOLTAN: If the previous administration, President Obama, struggled to get one American citizen out - now right here sitting in front of you - let's see if President Trump can do better.

KELEMEN: White House officials say they will handle these human rights issues in a, quote, "private, discreet way." They describe Egypt as a pillar of stability and a reliable partner for decades.

But Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls Egypt a problematic ally. And she says aid to Egypt has been on autopilot too long - totaling $77 billion since 1948, according to the Congressional Research Service.

MICHELE DUNNE: Seventy-seven billion dollars is a lot of money. It was meant to bolster peace in the region. And indeed, the Egyptian-Israeli peace has held. It was also meant to develop Egypt and to help Egypt move in a positive direction. And I don't think that has happened.

KELEMEN: The Egyptian government is said to be seeking more aid from President Trump at a time when the White House is calling for dramatic cuts in spending overseas.

Mohamed Soltan, the former political prisoner, wants the U.S. to use its money as leverage to get Americans out of jail. He's been lobbying hard on this and says he's feeling much better two years after he was freed.

SOLTAN: The physical pain goes away. It takes maybe days, months, years. But it's the psychological torture that I endured - and thousands of others continue to endure, including Americans today - that stuff stays with you.

KELEMEN: He says he feels a great responsibility to continue to shine a light on this with the Egyptian leader Sisi in town. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABAJI'S "AMOUR INFINI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.