“NO MORE blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’ ” tweeted then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in July. He was referring to Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, and he was reacting, in part, to the arrest by Egyptian security forces of several relatives of human rights activist Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen living in Northern Virginia. “Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like . . . Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable,” Mr. Biden said.
On Sunday came Mr. Sissi’s unambiguous response: new raids on the homes of six of Mr. Soltan’s relatives. Two cousins were immediately arrested, and security forces said four more were being sought. None are political activists; instead, those found by the security forces were questioned about their links to Mr. Soltan, who recently advised several members of Congress, including Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), as they established a new Egypt Human Rights Caucus. Once again, the Sissi regime, the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history, is attempting to punish and silence its critics in the United States, in clear defiance of President Biden.
The new administration’s response? On Tuesday, the State Department approved a $197 million sale of naval surface-to-air missiles to the Sissi regime. Spokesman Ned Price described the transfer as “a routine replenishment of defensive weapons.” In other words, if not a blank check, then business as usual with a government that pays for its U.S. weapons with $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid — one of the largest subsidies to a foreign nation.
To be sure, the administration delivered some sharp rhetoric along with the missiles. “We are raising these reports with the Egyptian government, and we won’t tolerate assaults or threats by foreign governments against American citizens or their family members,” Mr. Price said. “Such behavior is against our values, it’s against our interests, and it very much undermines our bilateral partnerships around the world.”
But such words mean little to Mr. Sissi if U.S. money and weapons continue to flow. A former general who led a bloody 2013 coup against a democratically elected government, Mr. Sissi relies on the military, which in turn depends on the gravy train of U.S. aid. The notion that this arrangement “serves U.S. and global interests,” as Mr. Price contended, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: For the past several years, the most notable action by the Egyptian military has been to back Libyan insurgents trying to overthrow the U.N.- and U.S.-backed government.
Since taking office, Mr. Biden has been speaking up strongly in defense of human rights and democracy, including in Myanmar, Russia and China. That’s a welcome and badly needed change from President Donald Trump, who loudly defended tyrants such as Mr. Sissi. But if the new president is to have a meaningful impact, he must connect his words to actions. A good first step would be to consult with the Egypt Human Rights Caucus on linking further military aid and sales to Egypt to the release of political prisoners — starting with Mr. Soltan’s relatives.