WASHINGTON — Mohamed Hassanein watched in amazement as he clutched the phone smuggled into his Cairo jail cell.
On the small screen, the political prisoner viewed a replay of a speech by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio some 5,000 miles away on Capitol Hill. The Florida Republican spoke about the injustice of the Egyptian government holding Hassanein and his wife, Aya Hijazi, a citizen of both the U.S. and Egypt whose detention on trumped-up charges was now stretching to three years.
“We simply cannot, in the national interest of our country, turn a blind eye to the ongoing repression of Egyptian citizens by their government,” Rubio said. “It weakens our moral standing in the world and it makes Egypt less secure. And if Egypt is less secure, ultimately America will be less secure.”
Next to Rubio as he spoke on the Senate floor, an easel held a large photo of Hijazi behind bars, her shoulders slumped and her face despairing .
As Hassanein replayed the speech to fellow inmates, a sense of hope washed over them, his wife recalled.
“They were really happy that he had the picture and that he talked about us,” she said. “And it wasn’t that he just talked about me specifically. More broadly, it was about the situation in Egypt and human rights and that felt good to them.”
Such a moment would not have happened had Rubio stuck with his plan to exit from political life following his humbling loss to Donald Trump in his home-state presidential primary in March of last year. But having won a second term in November, Rubio has picked up where he left off, this time with a bigger platform to advocate for human rights and a president who seems willing to listen.
Rubio, whose Cuban heritage has given him a personal connection to human rights abuses, has spent the past six months publicly flogging political crackdowns around the world, notably in Russia, China and Venezuela.
On this particular April evening, he wasn’t sure who would hear him — or care — as he forcefully spoke about the young Egyptian couple’s plight. But he also made sure he delivered the same message along with other lawmakers and advocates to the White House.
Within weeks, both were freed after a Cairo court acquitted them of the phony child abuse charges on which they’d been detained.