The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Biden administration just tiptoed away from its warnings on ‘Trump’s favorite dictator’

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in 2018. (AP)

Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate and president of the Freedom Initiative.

This week, the Biden administration released $170 million and delayed $130 million of taxpayer dollars to one of the world’s most ruthless autocratic regimes, which has imprisoned and killed American citizens: Egypt under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Breaking with President Biden’s campaign promise of “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’ ” the administration has given more money to Sissi than the Trump administration did during its first year in office. This early test for the administration’s credibility and commitment to a rights-centered foreign policy has been a devastating failure.

I write this with a heavy heart, as I was proud to support Biden’s presidential bid, having tirelessly volunteered and fundraised for his campaign. The president even tweeted about Sissi’s targeting of my family while on the campaign trail. So this decision, which is deceptively packaged as progress, not only comes as a shock, but also a brutal disappointment.

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The money at stake was for a portion — $300 million — of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt that Congress conditioned on clear human rights benchmarks. If the administration had withheld all $300 million, Egypt would still have been the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Past administrations have used a national security waiver to provide the conditioned money. But the Biden administration decided to employ a never-before-used provision to release $170 million for border security, counterterrorism and nonproliferation, and delay $130 million, pending resolution of new, limited conditions, including the closing of a decade-long farcical investigation into Egyptian and American nongovernmental organizations, and the release of only 16 individuals identified by the administration.

The Biden administration is aware of the sweeping powers that Sissi has; he could, with the stroke of a pen, meet all the original benchmarks set forth in the appropriations bill. Yet, unlike President Trump, who openly courted Sissi, the Biden administration performed legal gymnastics to give Sissi taxpayer dollars while trying to save face by not using the waiver. Just days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised “Congress’s traditional role as a partner in foreign policy making,” this approach relegates Congress to a spectator’s role by ignoring the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

The decision has immediate real-life consequences for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians whose lives and security hang in the balance — myself included. Governments and international human rights organizations continue to document a wide array of systemic abuses in Egypt, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, the detention of journalists, censorship and corruption. This also has implications for U.S. citizens and residents who face detentions, travel bans and even threats of intimidation and surveillance on U.S. and European soil. Egypt has detained more than 60,000 political prisoners, so the administration’s decision to invoke just 16 individuals in its list of conditions is a crushing signal of the administration’s apathy toward the harrowing suffering of Egyptians.

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This decision also illustrates that Biden’s tough rhetoric on human rights is selective, reinforcing the perception of a weak and malleable administration. Authoritarian leaders around the world are taking note.

As Biden tiptoed away from his campaign warning, Sissi announced over the weekend his own meaningless “National Strategy for Human Rights,” a document only intended to satisfy Western policymakers. The strategy does not provide a meaningful path toward political reform, fails to mention political detainees and lacks clear guidance on improving women’s rights. Moreover, in the strategy’s launch conference, Sissi noted to foreign officials in the room that universal standards of human rights should not be applied to Egyptians. Biden’s empty threat was matched with an empty promise from Sissi.

But there is still time for the Biden administration to course correct. The Egyptian regime must be made to feel that the full range of the administration’s policy toolbox is on the table if it fails to make tangible progress on human rights. The administration should work to sanction human rights abusers in Egypt — privately and publicly — and push for a time-bound fulfillment of seven steps identified by Egyptian civil society to stop the deteriorating human rights situation, with meaningful consequences. It should also make clear to the Egyptian regime that more of next year’s aid is on the line.

Meanwhile, Congress should express public outrage at the Biden administration’s overreach and bending of the law to embolden a ruthless regime and immediately begin work to close the loopholes. Congress must also increase the amount of aid — currently $75 million — that is conditioned without the possibility of a waiver on the release of political prisoners. And if Biden and his team fail to effectively use the leverage Congress has granted it for advancing human rights, then lawmakers should provide the administration with better tools.

If the Biden administration is genuine about prioritizing human rights as part of its national security strategy, it must put its money where its mouth is; only then will its words hold weight. We in the human rights community will not rest until the administration rights its wrongs — or is held to account.