The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. policy toward Egypt sparks conflict between congressional Democrats and Biden

Biden pledged there would be ‘no more blank checks’ for Trump’s 'favorite dictator.’ But a weapons sale is raising concerns.

President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Riyadh in May 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)

As criticism mounted after the Biden administration decided not to punish the Saudi crown prince for the killing of a journalist, a quieter conflict was brewing in Washington over another troubled U.S. alliance in the region.

President Biden’s aides had signaled a renewed focus on human rights in foreign policy, and while campaigning, Biden said there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’ ” referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi by a nickname President Donald Trump reportedly used.

But Biden’s talk of a fresh start clashed with the State Department’s approval in February of a $197 million sale of missiles and related equipment to Egypt. The decision — and timing — raised concerns among some Democratic lawmakers who have oversight responsibilities for weapons transfers.

Those concerns were reinforced this week with the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report, which excoriated the Sissi government for “unlawful or arbitrary killings … forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government … harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention,” and other injustices.

The Biden administration formally notified Congress of the potential missile sale on Feb. 16, just as news emerged that the Egyptian government had arrested the cousins of an Egyptian American dissident, Mohamed Soltan, in a move seen by human rights activists as an intimidation tactic designed to silence Soltan’s criticisms of Sissi.

“The detentions happened while we were reviewing the formal notification,” said a congressional committee aide familiar with the situation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive bilateral relationship. “We would’ve hoped, that given the significant news that Mohamed Soltan’s cousins were detained, that the State Department would’ve paused, consulted and reassessed.”

A State Department spokesman defended the move, saying in a statement that the missiles serve “U.S. and global interests by enhancing the Egyptian Navy’s ability to defend Egypt’s coastal areas and approaches to the Suez Canal.”

Officials also doubted that holding up the missiles would increase U.S. leverage, calling the package a “routine transfer.” But some lawmakers contested that point.

“The only thing that ever has an impact on Egyptian behavior is denying them toys, in my experience,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who served as a top official in charge of human rights in the Obama administration.

More potential conflicts over Egypt are looming between the Biden administration and Congress. Legislation passed last year makes $75 million in military aid to Egypt contingent on the release of political prisoners and other human rights issues. It does not include a provision that would allow the State Department to waive the requirement, as it had often done in the past.

That’s a small fraction of the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives annually from the United States in military aid, but experts on the relationship between the two countries said it was emblematic of the increasing skepticism Egypt faces in Congress.

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he understands that the Biden administration is still finding its footing and staffing up, and that it did not benefit from an orderly transition. But patience will last only so long, he said.

“We don’t understand why it makes sense to give massive military aid to a country that doesn’t appear to face foreign threats, that is not collaborating with us very well in Libya to the west, and in particular that is repressing its own people,” he said in an interview. “What crucial role is Egypt playing right now, and what justifies us giving them all this aid?”

Underlying the tension, experts said, is a cold reality: Egypt’s influence and importance to U.S. policy has long been waning. Egypt is no longer the only Arab country with normalized relations with Israel, as it was when the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979.

“For a long time, U.S. military aid to Egypt was untouchable because it was seen as part of the peace deal with Israel,” said Michele Dunne, an expert on Egypt at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That has changed. It’s become more and more open to question.”

Biden is facing a version of a dilemma that bedeviled his former boss. President Barack Obama struggled with how to hold Egypt accountable for abuse of its citizens and anti-democratic actions. Obama initially froze aid to Egypt when the military ousted the country’s elected leader. After taking power, Sissi’s forces carried out mass killings of anti-government demonstrators, jailed thousands of political opponents and harassed human rights advocates. But in 2015, Obama lifted the ban, sparking criticism that the administration had caved without getting anything in return.

The Trump era proved a boon to Sissi. Trump welcomed him to the White House twice, congratulated him on a landslide reelection that critics derided as a sham, shielded him from critics in Congress and called him a “great leader.” And though the Trump State Department cut or delayed more than $290 million in aid to Egypt in 2017 over human rights concerns, it lifted restrictions on most of that funding a year later, even as the Egyptian government took no apparent steps to improve the situation.

Egypt released Soltan’s relatives in the weeks after the arrests, but the experience left him dismayed by the new administration’s eagerness to keep arms sales flowing to Cairo.

“My cousins are released and I’m grateful for the administration’s efforts to secure their freedom. But the missile arms sale on the same week of the arrests is emblematic of the dysfunctional, uneven and toxic relationship the U.S. has with Egypt,” Soltan said in a statement. “It enables and emboldens Egypt’s generals, and signals to them and other autocrats anxiously watching, that the ‘no more blank checks’ promise was a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ to carry on business as usual. Egypt’s state-run media said that much.”

Some overseers on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees remain worried about what they see as the State Department’s lack of concern about the arrests of Soltan’s relatives and pressed it to change the way it processes military sales. The congressional committee aide said the department eventually committed to having officials in the human rights bureau more regularly participate in “cross-agency discussions on these issues.”

Possibly anticipating a tougher reception in Washington after Trump’s departure, Egypt’s embassy in Washington in November signed a $65,000-a-month agreement with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a major lobbying firm, to push its interests in Washington. The team representing Egypt includes Edward R. Royce, a former Republican congressman; Nadeam Elshami, former chief of staff to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Mimi Burke, a former adviser to the Saudi Embassy in Washington; Mark Begich, a former Democratic senator from Alaska; Marc Lampkin, a veteran Republican lobbyist; and Samantha Carl-Yoder, a former Foreign Service officer who joined Brownstein Hyatt in February.

State Department spokesman Ned Price noted that the Biden administration signed on to a joint statement at the U.N. Human Rights Council that called on Egypt to improve its human rights record, and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised to “elevate human rights in our bilateral relationship with Egypt and in doing so consider the variety of tools available to the Biden-Harris administration to signal that these issues are a priority.”

The website first reported many of the lobbying registrations. Brownstein Hyatt, Royce, Elshami and the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

“Under U.S. law they have the right to lobby, but I’m hoping that American officials, especially my brothers and sisters in Congress, will be resistant to it,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who along with Levin and Malinowski recently launched a caucus in the House focused on human rights in Egypt.

Egypt’s immediate priorities in Washington, experts said, are continuing the flow of U.S. military aid, enlisting support in a long-running dispute with Ethiopia over a dam on the Nile River, and avoiding sanctions over a planned purchase of Russian military equipment.

“The role of lobbyists like those is adding legitimacy to the Egyptian government,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “It’s taking trusted, known faces in Washington and making them the face of the Egyptian government in the halls of Congress and with the administration.”

Royce retired from Congress in 2019 after serving as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which he had a lead role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. In 2013, he and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), then the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a joint statement on the military coup that omitted the word “coup” and cast blame on ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and his circle.

Analysts say the human rights reports released by both the Trump and Biden administrations paint a fairly scathing picture of the Sissi government, but they question whether that will affect policy.

“The differences in the two reports are not very significant overall,” said Amy Hawthorne, research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “In the main, the Trump-era reports accurately captured the key aspects of Egypt’s human rights crisis — but the Trump team simply chose to do very, very little about this crisis and instead treated al-Sissi with kid gloves.”

“So what matters, and what we should be watching for, is how the Biden administration responds to Egypt’s human rights disaster beyond this congressionally mandated report,” she added.