Biden should block aid to Egypt until Sisi respects human rights

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As far as Egypt is concerned, the United States has long favored the path of least resistance. Reluctant to take serious action to deal with human rights violations by the Egyptian government from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present day or its own complicity in supporting Cairo through military and economic aid, Washington s t is often based on pro forma critiques of Egypt’s record while largely ignoring the issues in order to preserve a difficult politico-military status quo in the region. US President Joe Biden has vowed to change course, but so far he has done the opposite.

Cairo’s role in negotiating peace agreements in the Middle East, its cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its preferential treatment of US warships and military planes transiting through the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always outweighs any concern about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government and its massive human rights violations. . Egypt’s role in “regional stability” was all that mattered. As a former American diplomat who served in Cairo, I must have written this talking point for visiting administration officials and members of Congress, or some version of it, hundreds of times.

As far as Egypt is concerned, the United States has long favored the path of least resistance. Reluctant to take serious action to deal with human rights violations by the Egyptian government from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present day or its own complicity in supporting Cairo through military and economic aid, Washington s t is often based on pro forma critiques of Egypt’s record while largely ignoring the issues in order to preserve a difficult politico-military status quo in the region. US President Joe Biden has vowed to change course, but so far he has done the opposite.

Cairo’s role in negotiating peace agreements in the Middle East, its cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its preferential treatment of US warships and military planes transiting through the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always outweighs any concern about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government and its massive human rights violations. . Egypt’s role in “regional stability” was all that mattered. As a former American diplomat who served in Cairo, I must have written this talking point for visiting administration officials and members of Congress, or some version of it, hundreds of times.

The problem is that human rights violations in Egypt, compounded by poor governance and economic mismanagement, have accelerated national instability and terrorism. As the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula have demonstrated, this can have far-reaching regional impacts. Indeed, the nonprofit Human Rights First noted “[Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s] brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling the growth of ISIS, as the group is recruiting supporters in Egyptian prisons at an accelerated rate. If Biden is serious about human rights, he now has the power to pressure Egypt by refusing a $ 300 million security assistance package.


After the 2013 coup d’état that led then Egyptian Defense Minister Sisi to take over the presidency in 2014, his regime jailed around 60,000 people on political grounds. Thousands of people have been detained indefinitely in abusive conditions, subjected to torture, without medical treatment and often without access to due process. Since then, the government has severely cracked down on civil and political freedoms and abuses by security forces, including enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings are rife.

Perhaps even more alarming is Egypt’s liberal application of the death penalty to enforce government order and intimidate its opponents. In 2020, the country ranked third in the world for the number of executions it has carried out, behind only China and Iran. International human rights groups have reported that many of those executed were government opponents convicted of violent crimes in politically tainted proceedings – often mass trials that failed to meet international procedural standards regular. Some of those sentenced to death were minors under Egyptian law, although none were known to have been executed.

The latest such case, which has been harshly criticized internationally, concerns death sentences handed down against 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted of their role in the 2013 sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people protesting by security forces. The convictions were upheld in June by Egypt’s highest court and are awaiting approval from Sisi.

And the situation is getting worse. Cairo’s crackdown also extends to cyberspace. In 2020, five women colloquially known as “TikTok Girls” were sentenced to prison terms of two years each, plus substantial fines, for breaking Egyptian “indecency” laws for their efforts. supported to establish themselves as stars of social media.

After these verdicts were overturned by the court several months ago, the Egyptian government successfully brought new “human trafficking” charges against two of the most prominent among them; in June Haneen Hossam was sentenced to 10 years in absentia and Mawada al-Adham, who was present in court, to six years in prison. The plight of the two women is only a small part of an overall Cairo effort to monitor, harass and silence its netizens for cultural and political purposes.

The regime has also gone to great lengths to intimidate activists abroad. Mohamed Soltan, an American citizen and Egyptian human rights activist, was held in an Egyptian prison for almost two years because of his peaceful political advocacy, where he was subjected to torture and other inhuman treatment. Released in 2015 following pressure from the Obama administration, he returned to the United States and founded the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based rights group. But the Egyptian government continued to harass his relatives in the country, provoked in particular by Soltan’s trial against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi for the torture of Soltan in detention.

During his visit to Washington in July, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel presented administration officials with a document allegedly signed by a US embassy official who promised Soltan to serve the remainder of his sentence. in perpetuity (which has not been canceled) in the United States.

Although the document is legally unenforceable even if it is genuine, Kamel’s ploy served two important purposes: first, as a warning that Soltan and others like him remain in the regime’s sights, and second, that the Biden administration shouldn’t overemphasize human rights. case because Cairo is ready to play hard. This would most likely take the form of a more severe crackdown on human rights activists and organizations in Egypt, as well as further pressure on relatives of critics living in the United States.

Since 2013, Egypt has seen nothing less than a slide towards totalitarianism, notable among authoritarian states but unique among close allies of the United States. Former US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump played down these developments, with Trump praising instead of censoring the Egyptian leader.

Biden, who famous promised “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” now has the opportunity to chart a new course. His State Department must currently decide whether or not to release $ 300 million in military aid subject to human rights conditions. Both Obama and Trump have issued national security waivers when faced with the same choice, giving up a key leverage point. If Biden does the same, it will let Egypt and other autocrats in the region know that they have nothing to fear from Washington’s new human rights discourse.

However, the administration appears to be in conflict. Instead of offering hard truths about human rights, he approved $ 200 million in arms sales to Egypt in February, saying the sale “serves US and global interests.” In April, the administration decided to quash Soltan’s lawsuit against Beblawi on the grounds that the former prime minister – who lived in the United States as Egypt’s representative to the International Monetary Fund – benefited from the diplomatic immunity. The case remains active, pending a judge’s ruling on the issue of immunity.

Biden appears to be softening up on Sisi, praising him for his recent role in ending the violence in Gaza. As a first step, the administration offers a “constructive dialogue” with Cairo on human rights issues. But the United States has already taken this route: similar dialogues under Obama and former US President George W. Bush have raised human rights issues, with no visible effect on the deepening repression in Egypt.

This dialogue could succeed where others have failed, but only if Washington changes the rules of the game.

First, the State Department should refuse to issue a national security waiver for the $ 300 million in military aid. This will show that Washington is serious and give Cairo a strong motivation to speak in good faith. The administration should also commit not to issue such waivers routinely in the future, but only as recognition of improved performance on the path to global change.

Second, US officials should make it clear that everything is on the table in constructive dialogue, not just what Washington and the Egyptian side feel comfortable discussing. What the United States needs to do instead is listen attentively to the genuine and thoughtful voices of Egypt’s own activists and align American human rights demands with what those voices recommend.

Such voices exist. In May, five respected and independent Egyptian human rights groups announced a package of “urgent measures” that the regime should be pressed to take to stop the growing crackdown in the country. These include the release of political prisoners, the end of indefinite detention before trial and the end of the state of emergency that has governed the country since 2017, which has covered some of the violations of human rights. most egregious human rights in Egypt.

These measures should be basic requirements in all US talks with the Egyptian government. Not only would the implementation of these policies mark a significant improvement in the human rights situation, but they would also help to create a climate where further progress is possible. Biden himself can reinforce the message by refusing to meet Sisi at the United Nations General Assembly this fall, refusing a nod of approval the Egyptian leader craves.

The United States’ interest in regional stability does not force Washington to ignore human rights; it demands that the White House take the issue seriously enough to push for real improvements. Egypt’s repressive record and Cairo’s centrality in US Middle East policy make it an ideal starting point.

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