The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden fails to deliver his promised hard line on Egypt’s abuses

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, looks on as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks at the State Department on Nov. 8. (Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

During his campaign for the White House, President Biden promised to restore human rights to “the center” of U.S. foreign policy — in dealing with allies and adversaries alike. Specifically, he said that there would be “no more blank checks” for Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally that has been under the dictatorial rule of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former general, since 2013.

This created expectations for a policy markedly different from that of then-President Donald Trump, who hosted Mr. Sissi in 2017 for the Egyptian leader’s first White House meeting and, after a 2019 get-together, said Sissi “is also a good man, and he’s done a fantastic job in Egypt.” Mr. Trump had blurted out “Where’s my favorite dictator?” before that sit-down. Aides said he was kidding — which, given the former president’s known admiration for the world’s strongmen, merely demonstrated Sigmund Freud’s theory about the relationship between jokes and the unconscious mind.

Unfortunately, there are signs that Mr. Biden’s administration will not meet the expectations he raised. Under Mr. Sissi, Cairo continues to stifle freedom of expression, restrict civil society organizations, detain thousands of political prisoners and practice torture, all in the name of fighting “terrorism.” Yet on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood next to Mr. Sissi’s foreign minister in Washington and extolled the United States’ “strong” and “expanding” relationship with Egypt. Mr. Blinken took the opportunity to decry Iran’s detention of U.S. citizens, a sin of which Egypt itself has been guilty in 18 recent cases — though as of 2021 it had released them, except for one, Mustafa Kassem, who died in custody. The secretary welcomed Egypt’s ballyhooed but mostly cosmetic “human rights strategy,” whose name oddly implies that the systematic violations are unsanctioned and not the result of Egypt’s own official policies. Mr. Sissi recently lifted a state of emergency — then quickly had it mostly reinstated by the parliament he dominates.

The United States has leverage on Egypt, in the form of a law conditioning up to $300 million in annual military aid on human rights. To its credit, the Biden administration decided in September to withhold $130 million of it, making it “very clear” privately what Egypt must do to get the funds. Officials say this kind of quiet diplomacy is the likeliest to get results. Yet Cairo may interpret it as similar to its experience under Mr. Trump, who withheld $195 million in 2017, and released it the next year. A more impressive show of support for Egypt’s beleaguered activists would have been withholding all $300 million based on publicly-established human-rights benchmarks, such as the release of political prisoners and other reforms called for in an open letter from the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.

No doubt the United States has what a State Department spokesman described as a “multifaceted” relationship with Egypt, and needs its cooperation on regional issues from the Gaza Strip to Sudan — where military officers have just pulled off a coup, reportedly after consulting with Mr. Sissi. It would be strategically unwise to ignore that reality. Nevertheless, Egypt’s dependence on the United States for military aid and other support gives Washington the power and the right — and the duty — to demand that Mr. Sissi respect his people’s basic rights.

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