U.S. President Joe Biden faces renewed scrutiny over the U.S. relationship with Egypt and its promise to defend abuses of rights committed by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after 11 days of deadly violence to the Gaza Strip.
Washington this month relied heavily on Egyptian mediators, who traveled between Tel Aviv and Gaza to arrive and stay a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the besieged Palestinian territory.
In doing so, the Biden administration has faced lingering questions about its promise to adopt a “human rights-focused” approach in Egypt, which has long served as an interlocutor in the Israel conflict. -Palestine as one of the few countries involved with both Israel and Hamas.
The President of the United States had done so before dit there would be no “more blank checks” for al-Sisi, whom he called his predecessor Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator,” but some rights advocates say Biden has no longer fulfilled that commitment.
“Once again, we see that nothing has changed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington-DC-based think tank.
“[Antony] Blinken did not meet with any civil society representatives during his stop in Cairo, “he said of the US Secretary of State. visit to the Egyptian capital last week in support of the ceasefire.
“He said nothing more about human rights than [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the Trump administration before him.
In two calls between Biden and al-Sisi this month (the first since Biden took office in January), the U.S. president “thanked Egypt for the success of its diplomacy,” according to a reading of the White House. “President Biden stressed the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights in Egypt,” the statement added.
On Wednesday’s visit to Cairo, Blinken also affirmed the U.S. “strategic partnership” with Egypt.
He told reporters that he had a “long discussion and exchange on human rights” with the Egyptian leader, who came to power in 2013 military coup which overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi was recently reelected in 2018, appearing virtually unopposed after his main challenger was arrested and several candidates abandoned the cause citing intimidation.
Seth Binder, the official advocate for the Middle East Democracy Project (POMED), said the Biden administration’s expression of gratitude “misread” the situation and sent the wrong message to Cairo.
Today important meeting with Egyptian President Sisi. I conveyed President Biden’s recognition for Egypt’s critical mediation efforts in support of the ceasefire and affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt. pic.twitter.com/NzW83ivpAC
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 26, 2021
“The Egyptians do it for their own interest,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t need to bend back to try to congratulate them on doing what interests them.
“We can still work with them to get a ceasefire and at the same time put pressure on them and continue to focus human rights on the relationship.”
The “utility” of El-Sisi
For el-Sisi, the moment of mediation in Gaza has been “Manna from heaven,” said Michele Dunne, director and senior member of Carnegie’s Middle East Endowment for International Peace program.
It increased the relevance of the Egyptian leader, as the Biden administration tried to focus its foreign policy on other parts of the Middle East and the world, and allowed el-Sisi to “prove its usefulness,” he said. Dunne and Al Jazeera.
He noted that the Egyptian president this time embraced the political advantage of serving as a mediator with Hamas, compared to the Gaza War 2014, in which he treated Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and supported Israeli aggression.
“I am confident that Sisi hopes that his usefulness in dealing with Hamas, and perhaps his usefulness in helping humanitarian aid in Gaza, will allow him to pass on human rights and other issues in US-Egypt relations,” Dunne said.
The most recent round of engagement comes when El-Sisi has struggled not only with the declared position of the Biden administration, but also with U.S. lawmakers who have become increasingly critical of U.S. military assistance. in Egypt, which amounts to $ 1.3 billion annually.
Pressure on Biden
In recent years, Congress has regularly passed legislation requiring the State Department to certify that Egypt is taking steps to meet human rights standards before the funds are released.
Last year, Congress passed a bill that conditions $ 75 million of this aid for the release of political prisoners in Cairo and meets other human rights standards, and contains no provision for an exemption. of the State Department.
Some in the United States have also questioned Egypt’s broader strategic importance, once considered a certainty given Cairo’s influence in the Arab world, control over the Suez Canal – an arterial trade route connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. – and its land border with the Gaza Strip. .
However, the Biden administration has shown that it may not pursue a policy review, dismaying human rights defenders and some lawmakers approving a sale of $ 197 million of missiles and equipment related to Egypt in February.
This happened just a month before the State Department’s annual human rights report denounced a list of abuses in Egypt, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, crackdowns on journalists and political opponents, and violence against the LGBTQ community. .
The El-Sisi government has overseen an extensive arrest campaign against rights defenders, journalists and other perceived critics, and approximately 60,000 Egyptians remain imprisoned.
US-based Egyptian rights activists also recently accused the Egyptian government to detain their relatives in Egypt as a way to pressure them to silence, an accusation that El-Sisi has rejected, but which rights groups have seriously raised alarm.
“The current conflict has caused awkward issues and political dilemmas that the Biden administration does not want to address,” Dunne told Al Jazeera. “And they will face many difficult decisions.”