US President Joe Biden is facing renewed scrutiny over the United States’ relationship with Egypt – and his promise to stand up to rights abuses committed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government – in the wake of 11 days of deadly violence in the Gaza Strip.
Washington this month relied heavily on Egyptian mediators, who shuttled between Tel Aviv and Gaza to reach and maintain a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian faction Hamas, which governs the besieged Palestinian territory.
In so doing, the Biden administration has been confronted with lingering questions over its promise to take a “human rights centred” approach to Egypt, which has long served as an interlocutor in the Israel-Palestine conflict as one of the few countries that engages with both Israel and Hamas.
The US president had previously said there would be “no more blank checks” for el-Sisi, whom he called his predecessor Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator”, but some rights advocates say Biden has already fallen short of 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 a single civil society representative during his stop in Cairo,” she said of the US secretary of state’s visit to the Egyptian capital last week in support of the ceasefire.
“He said no more about human rights than [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the Trump administration before him.”
In two calls between Biden and el-Sisi this month – the first since Biden took office in January – the US president “thanked Egypt for its successful diplomacy”, according to a readout from the White House. “President Biden underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights in Egypt,” the statement added.
On Wednesday’s visit to Cairo, Blinken also affirmed the US’s “strategic partnership” with Egypt.
He told reporters he had a “lengthy discussion and exchange on human rights” with the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi was most recently re-elected in 2018, running virtually unopposed after his main challenger was arrested and several candidates dropped out citing intimidation.
Seth Binder, the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), said the Biden administration’s expression of gratitude “misread” the situation and sent the wrong message to Cairo.
Important meeting with Egyptian President Sisi today. I conveyed President Biden’s appreciation for Egypt’s critical mediation efforts in support of a 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 are doing this out of their own interest,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t need to bend over backwards to try to congratulate them on doing what’s in their interests.
“We can still work with them on brokering a ceasefire, and at the same time pressure them and continue to centre human rights in the relationship.”
For el-Sisi, the timing of the Gaza mediation has been “Manna from heaven”, said Michele Dunne, director and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East programme.
It increased the Egyptian leader’s relevance as the Biden administration sought to focus its foreign policy on other parts of the Middle East and the world, and allowed el-Sisi “to demonstrate his usefulness”, Dunne told Al Jazeera.
She noted the Egyptian president this time embraced the political benefit of serving as a mediator with Hamas, compared with the 2014 Gaza war, in which he treated Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and supported Israeli aggression.
“I’m sure that Sisi hopes that his usefulness on dealing with Hamas and perhaps his usefulness in helping with humanitarian relief in Gaza will get him a pass on human rights and other issues in US-Egyptian relations,” Dunne said.
The most recent round of engagement comes as el-Sisi has contended not only with the stated position of the Biden administration, but also with US legislators who have become increasingly critical of US military assistance to Egypt, which totals $1.3bn annually.
Pressure on Biden
In recent years, Congress has regularly passed legislation requiring the State Department to certify Egypt is taking steps to meet human rights standards before the funds are released.
Last year, Congress passed a bill that conditions $75m of that aid on Cairo’s release of political prisoners and meeting other human rights standards – and does not contain a provision for a State Department waiver.
Some in the US have also questioned Egypt’s wider strategic significance, 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.
Still, the Biden administration has shown it may not pursue a policy overhaul, dismaying rights advocates and some legislators by approving a $197m sale of missiles and related equipment to Egypt in February.
That came just a month before the State Department’s annual human rights report decried a laundry list of abuses in Egypt, including extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances, crackdowns on journalists and political opponents, and violence against the LGBTQ community.
El-Sisi’s government has overseen a widespread arrest campaign against rights advocates, journalists, and other perceived critics – and approximately 60,000 Egyptians are still imprisoned.
US-based Egyptian rights activists also recently accused the Egyptian government of detaining their relatives in Egypt as a way to pressure them into silence – an accusation that el-Sisi has rejected, but which rights groups have raised serious alarm over.
“The current conflict has brought up uncomfortable questions and policy dilemmas that the Biden administration doesn’t want to deal with,” Dunne told Al Jazeera. “And they are going to be facing a lot of difficult decisions.”