Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th US President in January elevated hopes that he would shift from Donald Trump’s infatuation with autocrats and make good on promises to place human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy.
However, these pledges have fallen flat, and perhaps no greater testament to this is his “business-as-usual” approach towards Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Indeed, Washington has continued to tolerate Sisi’s merciless assault on human rights, despite Biden’s campaign vow of “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.”
Egypt had adopted a calculated approach to gain favor with the new administration. Just days after Biden won the November 2020 US presidential elections, Egypt’s Embassy in Washington hired the lobbying firm Brownstein Byatt Farber Schreck with a contract worth US$65,000 per month, reported Foreign Lobby. In further efforts to schmooze with Washington and appease Biden, Cairo also released over 400 political prisoners that month.
Despite this, Cairo still felt some anxiety over Biden’s potential pressure on the country’s human rights violations, according to Egyptian diplomatic sources cited by Al Araby Al Jadeed in March. Additionally, Biden’s refusal to contact Sisi directly until May amplified such concerns.
Yet the sources also mentioned that Egypt was never prepared to make major concessions to Biden, such as releasing a larger number of political prisoners, suggesting that Cairo eventually assessed that the new US president would not follow up on his threats.
Biden missed a key opportunity to press Egypt on its human rights abuses in February.
After all, Biden missed a key opportunity to press Egypt on its human rights abuses in February. Though he expressed concerns over Egypt’s detention of three cousins of the American-Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan that month, a day prior to this, the US State Department announced a US$197 million sale of naval surface-to-air missiles to Egypt’s military.
The US’ statement on the arms deal claimed that it would “support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a Major Non-NATO Ally country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East.”
Later on, as Israel launched an 11-day bombing campaign on Gaza in May, triggering a conflict with the blockaded enclave’s ruling party Hamas, on Egypt’s doorstep, Sisi saw a golden opportunity to nail down Washington’s support. Until then, it appears Sisi felt that he had not fully secured Biden’s blessings.
In Biden’s first official phone call with Sisi on May 20, the US President expressed the need to de-escalate the violence. Thus, the conflict in Gaza threw Sisi the lifeline that he had desperately sought.
Egypt positioned itself as a leading peace broker between Hamas and Israel, showing it could offer Washington a real service, given that Biden took a standoffish position on Israel’s escalation, as writer CJ Werleman acutely observed. This came after Egypt also attempted to placate its former rivals and US allies, Turkey and Qatar, in recent months, in an ongoing effort to refashion its image.
After Egypt utilized the ceasefire deal to gain Washington’s approval, Biden granted the Egyptian President’s wishes, as he praised Cairo’s role in brokering the agreement. Sisi was evidently keen to play on the reasons for Washington’s traditional support for Cairo, which began in 1979 and was partly motivated by guaranteeing Egypt’s friendliness towards Israel, after the countries were in a state of war until their peace treaty that year.
The US has provided Egypt around US$50 billion in military aid since 1979.
The US has provided Egypt around US$50 billion in military aid since then, even as it turned a blind eye to the country’s worsening authoritarianism, exacerbated by the 2013 military coup against the first democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi following the 2011 revolution.
And Biden now looks to consolidate this support, as Washington seeks a further US$1.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) for Egypt, a sum it has provided to Egypt annually since 1987. In light of this, five rights groups – Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Freedom Initiative, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – co-signed a statement criticizing Biden for offering Egypt “effectively, another blank check,” despite his promises to withhold them.
In a striking example of Egypt’s most recent abuses of authority, on June 14, the country’s highest criminal court chose to uphold the death penalty for 12 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were involved in a 2013 protest. The demonstration was organized in support of former President Mohammed Morsi – a member of the now outlawed Islamist faction, and was violently disbanded by security forces, leaving hundreds dead. The 12 protesters were initially sentenced during a mass trial in 2018 for their public display of dissent. That trial also resulted in 739 people being convicted on charges ranging from murder to damaging property.
Commenting on the sentencing, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the verdict follows a “sharp spike in executions carried out in Egypt in 2020, making it the world’s third most frequent executioner.”
Additionally, the Freedom Initiative published a report on May 26 highlighting Egypt’s attempts to coerce Egyptian activists exiled in the US. The report was dedicated to Mustafa Kassem, an American citizen who died while detained in Egypt.
The Freedom Initiative stated that over 120,000 Egyptians languish in prisons and detention centers. Most of the detainees were imprisoned without a fair trial and are not being held in humane conditions. Moreover, the Freedom Initiative observed at least 11 instances where Egyptian-Americans were detained, in violation of their protected rights by the United States government. The report also suggested that there are many American citizens whose relatives are detained in Egypt.
The Freedom Initiative stated that over 120,000 Egyptians languish in prisons and detention centers.
Despite it being a legal duty for an embassy to be immediately notified of its civilians’ detention, per Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, and that consular officers must offer support to detainees, most Americans detained have reported minimal assistance from the US Embassy in Cairo.
Furthermore, even the US State Department’s human rights report from April 2021 acknowledged that forced disappearances, torture, life-threatening prison conditions, repression of the media and free speech, along with censorship, are widespread abuses carried out by the Egyptian authorities.
The US clearly has a legal duty to act to protect its civilians in Egypt and address Cairo’s general human rights violations. Yet, as Biden has fulfilled neither his campaign pledges nor Washington’s legal obligations of upholding human rights, Sisi will likely breathe a sigh of relief. Egypt has been called an “open air prison” by regime critics, and Biden has ensured that the keys to this prison remain firmly in Sisi’s hands.
Still, there is a solution. As it was already clear that Biden’s potential pressing of Sisi temporarily forced the Egyptian regime to recalculate its policies, this is what is needed for human rights to prevail. Conditioning US military aid to Cairo would be a necessary step, as well as providing tangible support for those who are still imprisoned in Egypt.