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 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, Va., 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 in Cairo.
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 ever presented against them, and for nearly three years they were held as hearings were inexplicably postponed and trial dates canceled. Human rights groups alleged that 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.
What the White House plans to celebrate as vindication of its early diplomacy comes at the end of a week in which the administration has combated charges of foreign policy confusion. Although the president received wide praise for his decision to punish Syria for its presumed chemical weapons attack with a barrage of cruise missiles, the administration has been criticized for contradictions over policy toward Syria and Turkey, and misstatements on the U.S. response to North Korea’s weapons activity.
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 dropping of charges set in motion the release of Hijazi and Hassanein from custody and their journey to the United States, which was personally overseen by Trump and detailed Thursday by the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the national security sensitivities of the case.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who were already planning to visit Egypt this week, met with Sissi on a range of topics. Meanwhile, Trump also sent his military aide, Air Force Maj. Wes Spurlock, to escort Hijazi and her family on the plane home to Washington.
Hijazi and Hassanein reunited with the Hijazi family in Cairo this week, and as Mattis traveled on to Israel, Powell, who was born in Egypt and has helped smooth relations between the two countries, stayed behind to accompany the group, the senior administration official said.
The travelers touched down at Joint Base Andrews about 10 p.m. Thursday. Hijazi and her brother, Basel, are scheduled to visit the White House on Friday to meet with Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had followed Hijazi’s plight, the senior administration official said.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions the past couple of days,” Basel Hijazi said in a telephone interview Thursday from aboard the plane. “We’re crying with relief to have them out.”
He added: “We’re very grateful that President Trump personally engaged with the issue. Working closely with the Trump administration was very important for my family at this critical time. It let us be reunited as a family. We’re so grateful.”
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