As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged “no more blank checks for ‘Trump’s favorite dictator,’” a pointed reference to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country is the recipient of roughly $1.3 billion in US military assistance per year. But whether Biden can make good on that promise as president remains to be seen, and in the meantime, a leery Egypt is testing the waters.
Sisi “understands that it’s going to be a different ballgame than it was under Trump,” said William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
“I think his ideal play would be to give a warm, personal embrace to Biden, do some small things that are of interest to the US and be able to carry on with his repression against his own people,” Hartung said.
The overtures started within hours of the race being called for Biden last month. Cairo rushed to put out a statement, making Sisi the first Arab leader to offer his congratulations.
The Egyptian government also released from prison five cousins of US-Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan who were detained over the summer in apparent retaliation for Soltan’s lawsuit against Egypt's former prime minister. Their discharge came days after an Egyptian court ordered the release of hundreds of other prisoners.
But the possible gestures of goodwill were short-lived. A week after Sisi congratulated Biden, his security forces brazenly arrested the first of three prominent human rights defenders from the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights following a meeting the organization held with Western diplomats. One by one, Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah and Gasser Abdelrazek were jailed on terrorism charges and accused of “spreading false news.”
“I think it was very much intended to send a strong signal about Egypt’s sovereignty over its own domestic affairs,” said Allison McManus, research director at Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights group.
“I do think this was intended not only to say that Sisi is in control of what happens within his own borders, but also potentially to have more bargaining chips with an incoming administration that has already shown it will make human rights a priority,” said McManus.
Whereas President Donald Trump regularly lavished praise on Sisi for his style of governing and touted the “chemistry” between them, Biden has vowed a tougher approach. He put Sisi on notice in July, tweeting that arresting, torturing and exiling Egyptian activists and threatening their families is “unacceptable.”
Biden has also pledged to put human rights at the forefront on his foreign policy, with plans during his first year in office to convene a summit of democracies to “honestly confront nations that are backsliding.” Egypt would surely fall into that category.
Since coming to power after a bloody 2013 coup that unseated the country’s first democratically elected president, Sisi has waged a brutal crackdown on dissent. Egypt’s authorities have used the country’s vast counterterrorism laws to round up perceived political opponents, many of whom monitoring groups say were subjected to torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial killings. Among the estimated 60,000 political prisoners detained under Sisi's watch are a number of US citizens and permanent residents, including Khaled Hassan, Ola Qaradawi and Hossam Khalaf.
Only after a swift international outcry did Egypt release the targets of its latest sweep. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ Abdelrazek, Basheer and Ennarah walked free from Tora Prison following a barrage of pressure from foreign governments, the United Nations and, in his last tweet before Biden tapped him for secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
“Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights,” Blinken wrote.
Encouraged by Blinken’s digital diplomacy, human rights groups are now pressuring the transition team to come through on the promises made during the campaign, during which Biden often criticized Trump’s handling of Middle East autocrats. At a minimum, Biden is expected to set a new tone, one in which Sisi is no longer invited for White House photo ops that critics say legitimized his repression.
“I don’t think President-elect Biden will come into office with any desire to disrupt the relationship with Egypt, but President Sisi is no longer going to have in the White House someone who does special favors for him,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Trump conducted the relationship with Egypt “as a person-to-person relationship between himself and the leader in which favors were exchanged,” Dunne said. “It’s going to be different with Biden, and maybe Sisi doesn’t quite know what to expect.”
Much will depend on who fills out Biden’s Middle East team. Two names floated for senior staffing roles, Andrew Miller and Tamara Cofman Wittes, worked on Egypt in the Obama administration and are currently members of the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts that has called for leveraging Cairo's annual assistance package to encourage rights reforms.
The North African country remains the second-largest recipient of US military aid, averaging $1.3 billion each year. Since the Arab Spring, Congress has conditioned a fraction of that assistance, roughly $300 million, on Egypt making improvements on human rights.
But American presidents have long justified aid to Egypt as necessary for regional stability, and both the Obama and Trump administrations routinely used a waiver allowing them to release the withheld funds if the military assistance is determined to be in the interest of US national security.
Outside of military assistance, there are other ways for Biden to try to shape Egyptian behavior. His administration could pursue sanctions through the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows for visa bans and asset freezes on foreign officials implicated in rights abuses. This year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on Trump to apply Magnitsky sanctions after the death of Mustafa Kassem, a US citizen who died of heart failure after a hunger strike in an Egyptian prison.
Egypt’s sweeping campaign of arrests hasn't gone unnoticed in Congress. Last month, more than 30 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Sisi directly, warning that his continuing crackdown sends “a clear signal to us that this is not a relationship Egypt values.”
In the meantime, Cairo is seemingly gearing up for its political fortunes in Washington to change. Within days of Biden’s win, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had hired high-powered Washington lobbying shop Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck on a $65,000-a-month retainer.