One could have hoped that the regime, feeling more secure in its grip on power, would be willing to address Egypt’s chronic human rights challenges, even if on its terms and according to its own pace. Addressing such deep-seated issues requires cooperation from the regime, not just pressure on it. Willingness to formulate a strategy to deal with these challenges — gradual and slow as such a process might be — would have indeed been welcome news, worthy of engagement and probing.
Yet an examination of its human rights strategy quickly dissipates such hopes. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michele Dunne points out, the strategy “does not acknowledge that there is a serious human rights abuse problem in Egypt.” To the contrary, it lauds its so-called executive, legislative and institutional achievements improving human rights. All in all, adds Dunne, the strategy is built on “a basis of denial.”
Who does it blame, then, for the egregious human right crisis in Egypt? The citizens themselves. As pointed out by Bahey eldin Hassan — a leading human rights advocate facing a 15-year prison sentence for his tweets — the document faults Egypt’s citizens and political parties for the severe human rights crisis. The strategy repeatedly blames the lack of a human rights culture, ill-education and failure to participate in the political process, not once admitting the responsibility of its notorious security apparatus. Tellingly, just days after the release of this “strategy,” Sissi announced a plan to inaugurate the “largest prison complex” in Egypt.
It is hard to see this “strategy” as anything other than a stunt, designed and coordinated by the regime’s diplomats to deflect foreign criticism and, above all, legitimize President Biden’s engagement with former president Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator.”
But the U.S. government seems willing to entertain this charade, as indicated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, in which he set the bar for human rights expectations as low as “implementing measures in the National Strategy on Human Rights launched by the Egyptian government.” The stunt is working: Egypt’s less-than-halfhearted program is becoming the basis of the bilateral negotiation over human rights protection and democratic norms.
The Biden administration’s desperation for a positive sign from Cairo is understandable. Egypt helps with regional issues, especially in managing relations between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. U.S. national security agencies continue to see strategic benefits in cooperating with their Egyptian counterparts. And Egypt has powerful friends with influence in Washington: the Emiratis, Saudis, Israelis and the arms industry in the United States, which values the market created by its large assistance program to Egypt’s military.
In addition, nobody seems to be able to suggest a reliable alternative to the authoritarian regime in Cairo, or is willing to contemplate a return to the turbulence of 2011 to 2014. In a strategic context where China occupies the primary place in the list of priorities, not much attention or energy can be devoted to a stable, if problematic, partnership. Caught between his electoral promises and these realities, Biden’s best shot is for Cairo to give him a ledge to stand on as he manages congressional Democrats’ criticism of his engagement with Egypt’s brutal regime.
But Egypt’s “strategy” is a wild goose chase that will produce few results and leave Biden exposed to congressional criticism when the next serious human rights violation inevitably occurs. The United States has already poured more than $1 billion in military assistance to Egypt and offered its leaders additional $170 million of the $300 million that Congress conditioned on human rights benchmarks. That’s more than enough to buy Egypt’s purported strategic cooperation. After all, most perks of this cooperation are policies the regime has deep interest in maintaining. The administration can work with Egypt on these issues while tying the congressionally benchmarked funds to genuine improvements in its human rights behavior, at a lower cost in energy and time.
And if the regime isn’t interested in the $300 million the United States is throwing at its dictators enough to consider changing course, the U.S. government can find better use for those funds. Offering young Egyptians a chance to study human rights, economics and institutional reform; funding the work of human rights organizations; and supporting efforts to release political prisoners and help their families would all present better contributions to Egypt’s future — and to its relations with the United States — than throwing good money after bad.