During the campaign, Biden lambasted President Donald Trump’s “love affair” with autocrats such as Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom Trump called his “favorite dictator.” But since taking office, the Biden administration has continued the long U.S. pattern of giving lip service to human rights in Egypt while avoiding actions that might disrupt the bilateral relationship, such as withholding significant amounts of military aid. In February, Biden’s State Department approved the sale of about $200 million worth of missiles to the Egyptian military — just days after Egyptian authorities arrested the family members of U.S. human rights activist Mohamed Soltan, who had been previously tortured in an Egyptian prison.
Each year for almost a decade, the secretary of state has waived provisions of a law that condition the release of $300 million in Egyptian military aid on significant human rights progress there — part of the total $1.3 billion of foreign military financing Washington gives Cairo every year. In June, human rights groups urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to break the pattern and withhold the aid, pointing out Sissi’s continued slide toward autocratic thuggery.
On Tuesday, the State Department notified Congress it had come up with a compromise solution. As first reported by Politico, Blinken will not certify that Egypt is making significant progress on human rights, but, importantly, he will not waive the restrictions in the law either. Officials told me that $170 million will be given to Egypt under an exception in the law for items related to counterterrorism, border security and non-proliferation. At the same time, the other $130 million within that $300 million total will be held back, for now, pending more actions by the Egyptian government.
“We really feel like our bilateral relationship with Egypt is going to be stronger and U.S. interests are going to be better served through engagement,” to try to advance U.S. national security interests and address human rights concerns simultaneously, a senior administration official told me.
The official noted that Sissi this week issued Egypt’s first national human rights strategy. The administration has submitted a list of specific steps the Egyptian government must take to release the rest of the money, but the official declined to name any of them. The official also noted that the United States and Egypt have a lot of ongoing security cooperation efforts that benefit both sides.
The official said the Biden team “remains concerned” about a variety of Egyptian government human rights practices, which, according to the State Department’s most recent report on the matter, include extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary detention; politically motivated reprisal; and serious restrictions on free expression, the press and the Internet.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Middle East Subcommittee Chairman Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) panned Blinken’s action in a Monday evening statement, calling it “a half-hearted implementation of the statute,” and “a big missed opportunity to stand up strongly and unequivocally for human rights.” Murphy had been pushing the Biden administration to go further both in public and private.
In a floor speech in July, Murphy noted that Sissi is jailing as many as 60,000 of his political opponents as part of a broad anti-democratic crackdown. (Sissi claims he has no political prisoners.) Murphy also noted that Sissi won his last election with 97 percent of the vote, after intimidating any real opposition, with no visible pushback from the United States.
“Egypt has come to believe that it can act any way that it wants, that it can carry out a massive campaign of political repression, and that the Congress and the American president, whether he be a Republican or a Democrat, will just keep the money coming,” he said.
The Biden team is not likely to hear much criticism of its Egypt decision from the rest of Congress. Under the terms of the military financing arrangement, the funds largely will flow to U.S. defense contractors, who enjoy support on both sides of the aisle. Congress is also expected this week to release $900 million of the remaining $1 billion in Egypt military aid that has been held up, a GOP Senate staffer told me. Lawmakers are concerned that that Sissi is increasing his military cooperation with Moscow, including by purchasing Russian jets. But human rights groups didn’t hold back in their criticisms. “This administration has repeatedly vowed to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy and specifically its relationship with Egypt. This decision, however, is a betrayal of these commitments,” several groups wrote in a joint statement Tuesday.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told me the Biden team is trying to avoid criticism by crafting a solution that makes both the human rights community and the Egyptian government not too happy but not too angry. But it’s too clever by half.
“They are trying to split the baby down the middle,” he said. “But this split the difference, be-everything-to-everyone approach, leaves a muddled impression with everyone, especially Egypt. Meanwhile, this does nothing to make human rights a priority and does very little to solidify our bilateral security relationship with Egypt.”
In a recent report on the Biden administration’s first six months of Middle East policy, Katulis and CAP’s Peter Juul argued that the Biden team is focused on reducing the United States’s footprint in the region. That means avoiding the pursuit of any sort of any fundamental change that would require a new strategic approach from Washington. Biden’s actions in Afghanistan and Tunisia, where the Biden administration has not objected to a power grab by the president, support this analysis.
“One common mantra among some members of the new Middle East team in the Biden administration is ‘no more failed states,’ indicating modest and pragmatic goals for U.S. policy in the region,” they wrote.
Continuing the status quo of de facto condoning of Sissi’s autocratic repression may seem pragmatic. But that’s not what Biden promised as a candidate, and it’s a tragedy for those who believed him. In short, the Biden team can’t pull out of the Middle East and advance democracy and human rights there at the same time.