US President Joe Biden has vowed to make the advancement of human rights and democracy the cornerstone of his presidency. On the 2020 presidential campaign trail, Biden had promised to hold dictators accountable for their moral transgressions by ending blank check arms deals to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Six weeks into his presidency, however, there are troubling signs Biden is unwilling or unable to match rhetoric with deeds. Thus far, he has allowed blood-soaked dictators to walk away scot-free, including Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
24-year-old Mohamed Amashah – an Egyptian American medical student – was released on July 5, 2020, after being held for 486 days in an Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign calling for the release of political prisoners. Then candidate Joe Biden condemned the Sisi regime for “arresting, torturing and exiling activists” and promised “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.”
President Biden broke his promise by approving with no strings attached the sale of 168 tactical missiles to Egypt in February, valued US$197 million.
But despite the fact that other US citizens and permanent residents, including Hosam Khalaf, Khaled Hassan, and Ola al-Qaradawi, remain locked in Egyptian prisons, President Biden broke his promise by approving with no strings attached the sale of 168 tactical missiles to Egypt in February, valued US$197 million.
More troubling still is that this arms deal was announced the same day the Egyptian authorities arrested the relatives of Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian American activist and son of a senior member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Soltan was detained for more than 500 days after protesting against Sisi’s overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Ultimately, Biden’s odes to human rights hold little value if they’re not backed up with meaningful action. In continuing to support weapons deals to authoritarian regimes, his administration is tacitly encouraging the very crimes he has promised to end. Rather than cowering totalitarian dictators, the new President’s squeamishness is emboldening them.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that when then military general Sisi seized power by violent and bloody means in 2013, the Obama-Biden White House not only categorically refused to call it a “coup,” but also was quick to normalize him as a legitimate civilian leader, despite having murdered or imprisoned tens of thousands of his political opponents.
Moreover, the administration was quick to resume the flow of US$1.3 billion in annual US military assistance to Egypt, making it the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel, which is essentially how the US has been bribing Egypt into maintaining peace with Israel.
Today, tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, government critics, and academics languish in Sisi’s prisons.
Today, tens of thousands of human rights activists, journalists, government critics, and academics languish in Sisi’s prisons and dungeons, many on trumped up terrorism charges for daring to speak out against the Egyptian dictator.
“Authorities continued to silence journalists, bloggers, and critics on social media amid escalating use of the repressive 2018 cybercrimes law and have blocked hundreds of news and human rights websites without judicial authorization since 2017,” observes Human Rights Watch.
One of those is Gamal al-Gamal, an Egyptian born freelance journalist, who was arrested on February 22 after returning from Turkey, where he has lived for the past four years. Al-Gamal was charged with spreading false news, joining a terrorist organization, and inciting public opinion against the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It is clear he has been detained for publishing articles critical of the Sisi regime.
If the nightmarish ordeal experienced by recently released Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who was held for more than four years in pre-trial detention, is anything to go by, then President Biden should be deeply concerned for the fate of al-Gamal and the thousands of others like him.
Hussein was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” according to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, having been held for long periods in solitary confinement, denied medical treatment, and routinely physically abused.
The Sisi regime’s campaign of intimidation reaches beyond Egypt’s shores, with a coalition of human rights organizations accusing it of harassing the families of critics living in the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, and Germany as means to silence them.
It would be impossible to understand why Biden hasn’t followed through on his pledge to pressure Sisi on human rights or hold the Saudi Crown Prince personally responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, without placing the Middle East and North Africa in the broader context of what his administration hopes to achieve on a grand scale, which includes an almost total disengagement – both militarily and diplomatically – from the region.
“If you are going to list the regions Biden sees as a priority, the Middle East is not in the top three,” a former senior national security official and close Biden adviser told Politico.
The US is pivoting towards Asia-Pacific, a region of the world that will soon be responsible for 50 percent of global GDP.
In short, the US is pivoting towards Asia-Pacific, a region of the world that will soon be responsible for 50 percent of global GDP. Thus, the administration is shifting energy and resources away from the Middle East, including diplomatic posts, to meet the US’ greatest geopolitical challenge – a Chinese superpower. The Biden administration believes that a metaphorical rocking-of-the-boat in the Middle East and North Africa will unnecessarily impede its so-called “pivot to Asia.”
Therefore, it explains why Biden has rejected the notion of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, and why he’s not pressing hard for human rights in the region. From his perspective, wars are winding down and Israel’s security is assured, so why risk pushing Arab or Egyptian allies in a direction that would require a deeper US commitment and engagement?
That said, walking away from his pledged commitment to human rights in the region will be easier said than done, given a growing caucus in the US Congress are calling on the Biden administration to engage with lawmakers on plans for “expanded human rights due diligence” before supplying the Sisi regime with further weapons.
In January, Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) announced the formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, accusing the Sisi regime of carrying out “unprecedented repression and grave human rights violations,” while warning, “American interests have not been served by a policy of unconditional support for the Egyptian military, while downplaying the military-led government’s human rights abuses, corruption, and mistreatment of American citizens.”
If Biden is genuine about reasserting human rights and democracy, or what he calls “core values,” then he can’t continue to unconditionally arm a regime that is presiding over Egypt’s worst human rights situation in living memory.