There’s an expectation that Joe Biden will lead the United States in a sharply different manner than has outgoing President Donald Trump. Expectations for “change” are high, but one area where Washington has stayed the course for the past 40 years – that is since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 – is in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Apart from tactical divergences, US foreign policy has revolved around the security of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
During the Trump era, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have experienced significant strategic shifts, as Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain have established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. In so doing, these countries have joined Jordan and Egypt — the very first Arab country to send an ambassador to Tel Aviv, which did so in 1979. This has happened in a much more hostile regional context, still characterized by intense Arab nationalism tied to the Palestinian question.
For over four decades, Egypt has exploited its peace with Israel to extract the second (or third) largest amount of foreign aid from Washington. Certainly, the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi had a warm relationship with Trump – who famously called the Egyptian his “favorite dictator.” Yet, predictions are that al-Sisi should expect a colder relationship with Biden, who could revert to President Obama’s somewhat critical approach following the July 2013 military coup against Muhammad Morsi. Nevertheless, evidence from other Western states – which are also NATO members – suggests that, apart from some cosmetic variations for domestic voter consumption – Biden will not change Trump’s course in Egypt in substance.
Egypt with regional allies Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have adopted more diplomatic tones with Qatar, which they had isolated from the Gulf countries in 2017 by forming a blockade against it. Since the end of November, Kuwait and the Trump administration have led a mediation effort, which would be in Biden’s interest to continue: a reconciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council would allow for a more uniform anti-Iranian front. In practical terms this should ensure a steady flow of US military exports to the region, from cybersecurity to F-35 aircraft.
Qatar’s normalization, moreover, would likely imply a distancing of Doha from the Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan’s Turkey. Trump’s last minute diplomatic exploits will limit Biden’s ability to change course. Just as the new president will not undo Washington’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he will also continue to treat Egypt, regardless of al-Sisi’s leadership, as an essential US ally in the Middle East. The US has typically not treated North Africa as a priority – despite a brutal civil war in Algeria during the 1990s when Washington was largely absent.
Biden is Unlikely to Get Involved in North Africa
Even in Libya, where Trump allowed the EU, France, Turkey, and Russia considerable latitude, Biden — his promise to advance democracy notwithstanding — is unlikely to reverse course, whereas, Egypt has maintained its strategic significance. That can be easily surmised from the actions of close Washington allies – and especially those that are “ideologically” aligned with the Biden administration – such as France and Italy. Both these countries, despite the al-Sisi government’s considerable human rights abuses, have continued to pursue lucrative military equipment contracts, as have Germany, the UK, Russia, and of course the United States.
Egypt has become a major player in the extraction and supply of natural gas in a project technically managed by the Italian energy giant ENI.
President Macron even presented al-Sisi with the Legion d’Honneur, prompting some Italian recipients of the award to renounce it to protest the torture and assassination of Emilio Regeni, an Italian graduate student who turned up dead and horribly beaten in Cairo in 2017. And Egypt is not just an attractive market to unload military wares, it has also become a major player in the extraction and supply of natural gas in a project technically managed by the Italian energy giant ENI.
Whatever human rights differences Rome may have with Cairo, common interests trump – pun intended – pesky human rights violations. Given the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economies of most Western countries, neither the United States nor its allies will forego lucrative arms exports deals – and domestic procurement programs – which create industrial job opportunities.
Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian Army has diversified its arm suppliers. Rather than relying solely on Soviet armaments, Egypt shopped around, and al-Sisi has intensified that trend to increase strategic capabilities and to maintain solid relationships with the EU and the United States, as well as Russia. Consider that the US threatened to impose sanctions on Egypt, when its air force expressed interest in buying Russian Sukhoi fighter jets.
Therefore, Biden will likely choose to ignore al-Sisi’s human rights record – even while publicly urging for improvements– in order to uphold the more profitable aspects of alliances with essential regional partners. That said, after the latest wave of arbitrary arrests, there are very few NGOs left in Egypt, as al-Sisi has ruthlessly pursued the elimination of any form of dissent. A video by American actress Scarlett Johansson made the biggest waves, highlighting the plight of political dissenters in Egypt.
Biden will likely choose to ignore al-Sisi’s human rights record in order to uphold the more profitable aspects of alliances with essential regional partners.
The fact that the Egyptian mukhabarat (secret police) targeted human rights activists, who met Western diplomats (Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, UK, Switzerland, and Canada – most of which continue to sign armament supply contracts with Cairo) to denounce the al-Sisi government’s relentless abuses speaks volumes about the priorities of the “international community.” It’s not personal; it’s business said a famous entrepreneur once.
In an editorial published in the New York Times, Jess Kelly (the wife of Karim Ennarah, one of those detained, guilty of having spoken to the Western diplomats) suggested that the Egyptian authorities purposely timed the arrests to test the waters in Washington with the incoming Biden administration. Biden said there would be “no more blank checks for al-Sisi,” and Anthony Blinken, the next Secretary of State, tweeted in support of the three activists: “Meeting foreign diplomats is not a crime.”
Nevertheless, arrests of NGO members or other pro-democracy, Western-educated, usually upper middle class, young Egyptians have not been exclusive to the al-Sisi era. Such arrests were the norm during the years of President Hosni Mubarak, who had close relations to every US Presidents from Reagan to Obama – until the Tahrir Square revolution. Egypt, regardless of who has been in charge since Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the British, after de-facto European colonization since the mid-1800s, has good reason to be suspicious of foreign meddling.
In many ways, while Biden is unlikely to get in the way, NGOs and Western-linked pro-democracy organizations might make matters worse for Egypt. That is because al-Sisi understands that Egypt has lost its unique role for American foreign policy in the Middle East. As more Arab governments establish relations with Israel, and as the Palestinian question has become all but forgotten (by the West and the Arabs alike), Cairo cannot expect that Washington will continue giving it carte-blanche support because it fears of potential instability.
Should Biden demand too many human rights concessions, it will make al-Sisi more fearful, and more likely to tighten security.
Surely, Cairo’s close relationship with key American allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Israel make a radical change in US policy unlikely. But, because of this fear, should Biden demand too many human rights concessions, it will make al-Sisi more fearful, and more likely to tighten security. Besides cutting off military aid will simply open more lucrative contracts for France, or Italy which have been doing brisk business selling ships and airplanes to Cairo in the past few years.
In that regard, perhaps President Macron has a point. Macron has insisted he would not condition the sales of arms to Egypt on human rights. In fact, by doing so, Macron has chosen not to be hypocritical. Despite the pompous Western proclamations that human rights are fundamental, backed by even more pompous democracy programs, the prolonged post-2008 subprime economic crisis (despite what the Dow Jones index might say), now magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, expose such advocacy for the hot air it has always been.
France has surpassed the United States and Russia as al-Sisi’s favorite armaments supplier, having sold him several billion euros (5.2 billion in aircraft alone) worth of missiles, boats, and Rafale jets. Macron, a “liberal” by all accounts, has had the honesty to admit that foreign affairs are conducted on the basis of realpolitik interests. France, like Cairo has backed General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. France, moreover, like Turkey has also challenged Turkey. Together with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel it has disputed natural gas exploration areas and maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. And like al-Sisi, Macron sees his country struggling to contain Islamic terrorism.
As a Famous Prophet Once Said: “He Who Has No Sin Cast the First Stone”
In other words, al-Sisi, like other military dictators, knows what chords to strike in order to obtain what he wants from the West. He exploits its deepest weakness: the West needs markets to sustain its ever more precarious economies.
As for human rights activism, the problem is that it cannot be “fractioned” in the Middle East and North Africa. There must be a fundamental respect for the sovereignty of the individual governments of the region, which have emerged from decades of colonialism and meddling. No government in MENA can afford to let its guard down. The examples of Mossadegh in Iran, the US invasion of Iraq, and the interference in Libya, Syria, and Yemen (to mention a few) suggest that it matters little whether a government is democratic, just, or authoritarian.
Before efforts to promote human rights in Egypt are taken seriously, the West must adopt a radical shift in MENA-wide policy.
The West, and the United States in particular, will act to enforce what it perceives as its best interests. Before efforts to promote human rights in Egypt are taken seriously, the West must adopt a radical shift in MENA-wide policy: no more maneuvering to promote the interests of a few key states at the expense of others, and no more arms sales and grossly unfair aid packages. Only in that neutral equilibrium can calls for more human rights have their desired effects. Until such time, it is not realistic to expect al-Sisi, or anyone else in his position, to consider “democracy” activists as not being manipulated by foreign interests.
Allowing a genuine, grassroots movement to emerge in Egypt, free of foreign funding and interests is the only way to achieve any kind of “honest” change. The United States remains too raveled in the Middle East for its president to advocate respect for human rights, when its governments have clearly shown the opposite. Meanwhile, as Macron might rebut critics of his Egyptian policy, it’s best to keep open lines of communication than to risk losing both business and potential influence.
Still, Biden need not emulate Macron. He can make some problems for al-Sisi – considering the period of cordial relations with President Donald Trump – by re-ushering the icy atmosphere that characterized bilateral relations the Egyptian president had with President Obama. Obama never granted the Egyptian president the honor of an official visit and delayed some US$260 million in military aid to put pressure on Cairo. But, whether US military contractors and lobbies approve of anything that goes beyond such measures remains doubtful.