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 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 and 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."
Since Sissi came to power in a 2013 coup, his authoritarian government has presided over a lurching economy, with massive debt, high unemployment and allegations of corruption. A $12 billion loan last year from the International Monetary Fund and strict austerity measures have led to slow improvements, but Egypt still needs major outside investment and favorable financing.
During his U.S. visit, Sissi met with the heads of the IMF and the World Bank, along with the chief executives of Lockheed Martin and General Electric. Sissi has sought billions of dollars in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank for massive infrastructure investments.
During his campaign, Trump suggested that the United States could "do well without" the Ex-Im Bank. But last week, he reversed himself by nominating former Republican lawmakers Scott Garrett and Spencer Bachus to vacant positions on the bank's board.
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.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said he recently advocated for Hijazi's release in his own talks with Sissi and was briefed on the latest negotiations, said Trump "handled it the way things like this should be handled."
"The United States can sometimes lead with things, and do it publicly, [in ways] that are offensive to people and likely not get the kind of result that we'd like, whereas working it quietly and making it a priority, but doing so in a way that is not a public embarrassment to the other party, that's the way they worked this," Corker said in an interview Thursday.
Former Obama administration officials, who were at times criticized for not making a more public case out of Hijazi's imprisonment, 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."
At the same time, Blinken warned, such support could "have the opposite effect of simply reinforcing [Sissi's] crackdown at home, in a way I think someday is going to rebound against him, and probably rebound against us. . . . You can try to repress your problems away, but at some point, they will explode."
During Sissi's visit to Washington, Trump made no public mention of Hijazi's imprisonment. Nor did he appear to pressure the Egyptian leader on his record of human rights abuses.
But the senior administration official said Trump had been following Hijazi's case and raised it privately with Sissi.
"I want her to come home," Trump told his top aides and deputized them to work directly with the Egyptian government to secure her release, according to the senior administration official. Officials at the State Department and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo helped facilitate Hijazi's departure from Egypt, while attorney Wade McMullen and other leaders from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit advocacy organization, also worked to free her.
Kerry Kennedy, the group's president, said in a statement that her team had worked with the administration, and "we are deeply grateful to President Trump for his personal engagement in resolving Aya's case."
Sissi, a former army chief who led the coup that overthrew Egypt's elected president, had been barred from the White House by the Obama administration for human rights abuses. Sissi's post-coup crackdown has been particularly severe against civil society groups, especially those receiving money from abroad. They are frequently denounced by the government and pro-government media as trying to destabilize the country. Thousands of people remain imprisoned.
While President Barack Obama was uneasy with the elected government of Mohamed Morsi, whose political organization was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, his administration rejected Sissi's charges of terrorism ties. After the coup, Obama withheld aid from Egypt - for decades, the second- largest recipient of U.S. military assistance, after Israel, at more than $1 billion a year.
During his presidential campaign, Trump expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders he felt were tough on terrorism and derided what he called Obama's "weak" leadership.
This month, as Sissi smiled beside him in the Oval Office, Trump said warmly: "We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sissi."