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The Takeaway: Will Biden push Sisi to free Alaa Abdel-Fattah?

Plus, Netanyahu's election will test US foreign policy toward Israel; Saudi Arabia is still detaining US citizens; and State Department officials visit prison camp for ISIS dependents.
Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah gives an interview at his home in Cairo on May 17, 2019.

When President Joe Biden meets with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on Friday, Egypt’s most famous political prisoner will be on the 223rd day of a hunger strike to protest his years-long detention. 

The family of 40-year-old British-Egyptian activist and computer programmer Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who stopped drinking water entirely on Sunday, wants Biden to personally resolve his case with Sisi — before it’s too late. 

“I feel like President Biden is the last remaining resort,” Abdel-Fattah’s sister Mona Seif told Al-Monitor. “If he can't help in saving Alaa, I don’t know if there would be any other chance before he dies.”

The meeting with Sisi — their second of Biden’s presidency — will take place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where Egypt is hosting the global climate conference known as COP27 through Nov. 18. The country’s human rights record has cast a shadow over the summit, where hundreds of world leaders, CEOs and climate scientists have convened to discuss the climate crisis. 

As first reported by Al-Monitor, a letter signed by more than 50 congressional Democrats last week urged Biden to press the Egyptian government on its jailing of Abdel-Fattah and other activists.

US officials have not said whether Biden will specifically raise Abdel-Fattah’s case, saying only that human rights will factor in their conversation on a broad range of global and regional security challenges. 

A State Department official speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said the Biden administration has engaged Egypt in “a very serious discussion about how our relationship is stronger when there’s tangible progress on human rights.”

“It’s a conversation that took place long before COP, is taking place now, and will fully continue after COP as well,” the official said. 

Biden has taken some fire from his own party for his approach to Egypt, a major recipient of US military assistance. The administration views the North African country as a key counterterrorism partner and touts its role in de-escalating regional conflicts, including between Israel and Gaza-based militants. 

The State Department in September said it would withhold some but not all of Egypt’s annual security aid that Congress had conditioned on certain human rights improvements. In defending that decision, US officials pointed to the Egyptian government’s upcoming national dialogue with the opposition, the work of its presidential pardon committee and the release of hundreds of political prisoners this year.  

But NGOs say the number of new arrests have eclipsed the number of prisoner releases. In just the last two weeks, local monitoring groups say that at least 165 people were summoned before the state security prosecution. 

“This is not about saying the situation is fine or giving a passing grade,” the State Department official said. “But the unprecedented release of hundreds coming out of Egyptian prison is a good thing.”

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Biden admin braces for Netanyahu-led government  

Despite the polite tone of Biden’s much-anticipated phone call with incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the administration is no doubt concerned by the right-wing coalition government he is likely to install. Already there have been reports in Israeli media that the White House will not engage with Jewish nationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir should Netanyahu appoint him as a cabinet minister. 

Publicly, the State Department says it’s waiting for the government formation process to play out before commenting on any possible boycott. But behind the scenes, US officials are steeling themselves for an Israeli government anathema to the Democratic Party. 

Ben Caspit scoops that US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides is working to set up a channel of communications with Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Despite his right wing views, Deri is seen as more pragmatic than his potential coalition partners and was vouched for by veteran figures in Israel’s security agencies. As one Israeli official put it, “The Americans will view Deri as a sort of responsible adult. ... Given the current state of affairs, he is the only remaining lever the administration has.” 

US citizen’s arrest in Saudi Arabia adds to tensions

Now that midterms are in the rearview, Saudi critics in Congress expect Biden to make good on his promise to “rethink” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, a longstanding US partner in the Middle East that continues to hold Americans on charges that rights groups say are baseless. 

Al-Monitor broke the news last night that Carly Morris, a US citizen suddenly detained in Saudi Arabia on Monday, was released from prison. But her ordeal is far from over. 

Like at least several other Americans, Morris is subject to a travel ban, which she says is retaliation for social media posts that criticized the Saudi government. Even if she could leave the kingdom, the California native couldn’t bring her 8-year-old daughter with her. Morris’ former husband allegedly refuses to grant his daughter permission to leave, as is required under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. 

Morris and her advocates say she is effectively trapped in Saudi Arabia. Read my full story here. To learn more about the midterms’ impact on the US-Saudi relationship, register for tomorrow’s Al-Monitor Pro webinar.

US officials visit Syrian camp in repatriation push 

A US interagency delegation that included the State Department’s top official for Syria recently traveled to the sprawling displacement camp in northern Syria that is housing tens of thousands of Islamic State-linked women and children. Experts have long warned the under-resourced and overcrowded Al-Hol camp is a breeding ground for a new generation of ISIS adherents, and yet many foreign governments have dragged their feet or flat-out refused to repatriate their nationals. 

“We cannot deal with this alone,” Aram Hanna, spokesperson for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told Al-Monitor. “We asked the [US delegation] to find an official way to deal with the ISIS families and to take them back to their countries.” 

The Biden administration’s renewed push for foreign governments to take back their nationals appears to be paying off. Reuters reported this week that a record number of Al-Hol and Roj camp’s foreign women and children were returned to their home countries this year, including more than 100 from France and over 50 from Germany. 

A majority of the remaining foreign-born residents are from Iraq, where Shelly Kittleson reports that returnees are often feared for perceived or actual affiliation with ISIS. 

What we’re reading: 

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