The United States in mid-July expressed its concern over the ongoing detention of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics, and journalists. The targeting and persecution of human rights advocates and NGOs – such as Hossam Bahgat, Director General of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights – “degrades the rights of all Egyptians to freedom of expression and association, and threatens the stability and prosperity of Egypt,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price, during a press briefing on July 14. Price added that Washington “consistently and very clearly” raises human rights issues in discussions with senior Egyptian officials.
US concerns were exacerbated after the release of the State’s Department’s annual human rights report in March. The report pointed to the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi regime in Cairo for its gross human rights violations, including the killing, torturing, and forced disappearances of dissidents. The US administration, however, was strongly criticized early this year for approving new military aid to Egypt, amid Cairo’s widely reported corruption and abuse.
Most recently, on July 30, Al Jazeera reported that an Egyptian court sentenced 24 more Muslim Brotherhood members to death, eight of them in absentia.
“Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt has been executing people at an unprecedented rate.”
On June 28, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Middle East Eye reported 12 death sentences including high-profile Muslim Brotherhood opposition leaders convicted in a mass trial of the 2013 Rabaa protests. “Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt has been executing people at an unprecedented rate, making it the world’s third-worst country in terms of numbers of executions in 2020, according to Amnesty International.”
Capital punishment in Egypt is carried out by hanging. No one really knows how many people were executed so far in 2021 after a tripling of the number of executions in 2020 from 2019.
Egypt’s anti-democratic record has always been subject to condemnation due to decades of human rights violations, lack of transparency, and impunity for officials. Last year, Egypt held legislative elections marked by allegations of irregularities and blatant corruption that seemingly led to overwhelming victories for pro-government candidates. The legislative polls were preceded in 2018 by another farcical election, where President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi obtained 97 percent of the votes. The only contender for the post of the president during those elections was an ardent supporter of Sisi, while other candidates were either beaten up, arrested, or had decided to withdraw their candidacy before the elections.
The Start of US-Egypt Relations
Relations between the United States and Egypt were established in 1922 following the declaration of Egypt’s independence from its protectorate status under the United Kingdom. The two countries saw a huge boost in their ties following the signing of the peace treaties known as the Camp David Accords in 1978, by former Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—which led to a substantial increase in security, military, and trade relations between the US and Egypt.
Since then, the United States has provided Egypt with “what now totals US$50 billion in military and US$30 billion in economic assistance.” During the same period, the US has further rewarded Egypt with preferential treatment for signing the Camp David Accords, such as waiving duties on “imports from Egypt if the value includes 10.5 percent Israeli content.”
Winds of Change Under the Obama Administration
Throughout its recent history, the United States has not been known for supporting democratic changes in Egypt or in the Middle East in general. During the G7 summit, held in Biarritz, France, in 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that former US President Donald Trump was clearly heard by US and Egyptian delegates asking “Where is my favorite dictator?” in reference to Sisi.
US foreign policy in the Middle East region has always favored autocrats.
Trump is not an exception. US foreign policy in the Middle East region has always favored autocrats. Though certain changes appeared during the Barack Obama presidency between 2009-2017. In chapter 25 of his latest book, “A Promised Land,” Obama wrote in depth of the popular uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East, revealing that his administration had frequently discussed the long-term challenges facing the region. He expressed his worries about the “autocratic, repressive nature of nearly every Arab government.”
Obama further explained that National Security Council officials presented him with the blueprint of a Presidential Study Directive (PSD) “stating that US interests in stability across the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by the United States’ uncritical support of authoritarian regimes.” Obama noted that his administration tried to avoid being “suddenly caught between a repressive but reliable ally and a population insistent on change, voicing the democratic aspirations we claimed to stand for.”
Later in the book, the former US President described the conflicting positions within his administration vis-à-vis the anti-government demonstrations happening in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at the time—and in Egypt in particular. In 2009, during a visit to the Egyptian capital, Obama was impressed with the reaction of the audience while giving a speech at Cairo University. The attendees seemed committed to nonviolence, courage, and democratic values. Moreover, he did not hide his disaffection with the Mubarak regime that was in power then.
“If I were an Egyptian in my twenties … I’d probably be out there with them.”
Obama apparently even told one of his aides, after watching footage of the Egypt’s demonstrations on TV: “If I were an Egyptian in my twenties … I’d probably be out there with them.” Yet, Barack Obama admitted that the official sentiment in Washington was mixed. He wrote, “the older and more senior members of my team—Joe, Hillary, Gates, and Panetta—counseled caution, all of them having known and worked with Mubarak for years. They emphasized the role his government had long played in keeping peace with Israel, fighting terrorism, and partnering with the United States on a host of other regional issues.”
The prevailing opinion among many officials at the National Security Council, on the other hand, was that instead of depending on corrupt authoritarian regimes on the verge of collapse any moment, it would be prudent for the US administration to identify itself with the democratic movements sweeping the region.
But despite the rhetoric expressed by Obama in his book, the US administration eventually aligned itself with General Sisi, who took Egypt back to the old repressive governing system which had prevailed for decades. It is also worth noting that Obama’s book stressed that Joe Biden, then US Vice President, was among the senior officials who did not favor any change in the relations between the US and the repressive regimes in the region—particularly amid the “Arab Spring” protests that broke out during Obama’s term.
Egypt and the Biden Administration
Considering Joe Biden’s stance as Vice President, it was not much of a surprise when – only one month after being sworn in as President earlier this year– he approved a missiles deal for Egypt worth nearly US$200 million. The transaction was approved despite widespread protest from human rights organizations and could well be interpreted as an endorsement of the repressive policies of the Sisi regime.
It seems that serving the US interests in the Middle East region outweighs all other considerations.
As former US President Barack Obama detailed in his book, it seems that serving the US interests in the Middle East region outweighs all other considerations. Bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel, and the latter’s support for any authoritarian regime in Egypt that serves its interests, play an important role in this regard. Barack Obama clearly noted that an influential group of politicians inside his administration favored a government in Cairo that above all else can keep peace with Israel, fight terrorism, and “[partner] with the United States on a host of other regional issues.”
Joe Biden was foremost among such group voicing support for Egypt’s authoritarian regime, when he was Vice President five years ago. There is no reason to assume that as President he will change his position any time soon.