With Egypt, President Joe Biden has inherited a worrying human rights situation in a country that’s strategically important to the United States and its allies. Under the Trump administration, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — who Trump declared his “favorite dictator” — built a strong relationship with the United States, enabling al-Sisi to undermine the rule of law and systematically repress peaceful protestors, critics, and the general population. Al-Sisi, previously Egypt’s defense minister, rose to power after former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013 in a military coup. He subsequently “won” 97 percent of the presidential vote in 2014, wielding his alliance with Trump and billions of dollars in U.S. military aid that continued to flow in, even as Egyptian security forces committed widespread human rights violations. As the last four years have shown, giving al-Sisi whatever he wants is neither justifiable nor effective. Biden needs to take steps to rebalance the U.S. relationship with the Egyptian government, and the time for that is now.
Last year, al-Sisi’s rubber-stamp parliament extended his indefinite “state of emergency” for a fourth year — while security forces continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain, intimidate, disappear, and violate the human rights of hundreds of Egyptians with impunity. Targeting journalists and activists, the Egyptian government over the past 5 years held numerous sham mass trials based upon falsified terrorism charges. This is nothing new, with estimates of tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. Even beyond that, dozens of prisoners died in or shortly after release from Egyptian prisons in 2020; Mustafa Kassem, a U.S. national arrested in 2013, was among them, following a hunger strike and pleas for White House intervention. Trump’s bright green light also provided cover for authorities to continue a brutal crackdown on LGBTQ+ Egyptians; and, in North Sinai, to continue troubling military demolitions of homes, raising the toll to over 10,000 families displaced since 2013. Despite the best efforts of U.S. lobbyists hired by the Egyptian government, including sending letters to Congress indicating great progress for Egypt’s Christians, al-Sisi’s abuses haven’t spared the country’s Coptic Christian community either. Among others, Ramy Kamel, a Coptic-Egyptian human rights researcher, has been detained without trial for over 18 months, and Coptic Christians continue to face religious persecution with impunity.
For years, Egypt has been the second highest recipient of U.S. military aid worldwide at $1.3 billion annually, almost entirely earmarked for Egyptian security forces to purchase U.S. military weapons, equipment, and training. Last year, then-candidate Biden called for “no more blank checks” for al-Sisi; yet in February, the Biden administration approved a $200 million arms sale that happened to coincide with Egyptian authorities arbitrarily detaining Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan’s family. And, a new report reveals that, in his visit to Congress last month, Egypt’s spy chief Abbas Kamel outrageously questioned why the United States reneged on an alleged 2015 promise that Soltan would serve out a life sentence in U.S. prison if Egypt released him. This was just the latest example of how brazen the Egyptian government has become.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s 2022 budget requests the exact same $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt as before, with no human rights reforms or commitments from Cairo. Seemingly, another blank check, although a contentious debate is now taking place within the Biden Administration as to whether some aid should be withheld. If it decides to preserve business as usual, the United States will be continuing to turn a blind eye and enabling al-Sisi’s flagrant violations of human rights in his “open air prison for critics,” and will be further excusing the treatment of U.S. nationals like Soltan and Kassem.
In a broadly bipartisan effort, scores of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have pushed for the restricting of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Egypt over the past decade, citing the government’s human rights abuses. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), author of the Leahy Laws barring U.S. military assistance and sales to gross violators of human rights, even held up $105 million of Trump’s FMF to Egypt over Kassem’s treatment and eventual death. Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Don Beyer (D-VA), co-chairs of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, called for a greater emphasis on human rights in response to the February arms sale. Soon after, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Leahy re-introduced legislation strengthening oversight of human rights in arms sales. And just weeks ago, the House Appropriations Committee passed its State Department appropriations bill with a newly un-waivable $150 million restriction on FMF to Egypt. This amends the pre-existing restriction on military aid to Egypt from Congress’ 2014 appropriations bill, which every administration has gotten around by abusing the “national security waiver” exemption, as Biden already has. There is precedent, and support, for conditioning the military aid the United States sends to Egypt. But, so far, it appears Biden is prioritizing geopolitics over human rights.
For decades, the United States has justified military aid to Egypt on the basis of regional stability, namely maintaining the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty and a reliable Arab ally in the region. And now, Egypt’s prominent role in negotiating the recent Israel-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza has placed the vaunted “human rights approach,” which the Biden campaign and administration has called for, on the back-burner. So much so, that right after the Gaza ceasefire, the administration released the aforementioned budget request for military aid for Egypt with human rights requirements conspicuously erased after being included in early 2021.
Even the annual human rights report released by Biden’s own State Department in March extensively cited human rights abuses in Egypt, making continued unconditional military aid a clear Leahy Laws violation. In response to a question about the administration’s approach to ending abuses in Egypt during a White House briefing in May, Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated that that “type of conversation” is better handled “quietly, […] behind the scenes.” Quite a contrast with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tweet just a day later – certainly not quiet or behind the scenes – condemning “Beijing’s attempts to silence” critics and its “abuses of human rights.”
Human rights violations cannot be met with public silence and maybe private rebuke when geopolitically inconvenient. The Egyptian government has illegally and inhumanely detained human rights defender Mohamed el-Baqer and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah for 21 months and counting over sham charges without trial. They are just two out of thousands of political prisoners in the country. El-Baqer and Abdel deserve more than public silence from the United States — as do the thousands of arbitrarily detained activists, journalists, protestors, human rights defenders, and LGBTQ+ Egyptians; plus the scores of prisoners being denied healthcare and dying in custody; and the hundreds of individuals forcibly disappeared. And, that’s just in 2020.
The United States must not only hold Egypt accountable in its bilateral relationship, but also on the international stage. The United Nations, through various instruments, holds power to initiate monitoring and reporting procedures, as seen by a 2005 mechanism monitoring violations against children in armed conflict in over a dozen countries. Or, by the Human Rights Council maintaining a permanent agenda item solely on monitoring Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet the same council, for unknown reasons, also managed to go seven years without formally condemning the Egyptian government’s abuses between 2014 to this March, when it finally issued a joint statement critical of systemic violations in the country. In fact, the U.N. does have monitoring and reporting in Egypt, except it’s for environmental development – not human rights. The United States must use its influence to ensure abuses and violations of human rights law by al-Sisi’s security forces receive the international scrutiny and monitoring they warrant. This pressure works. Just look at Egypt’s quick release last December of three activists it arrested on baseless charges following sweeping scrutiny by the U.N. and leading member States, even with just baseline “concern” from then President-elect Biden’s transition team.
While U.S. support of the Human Rights Council statement is encouraging, it’s not enough. A commitment to human rights in U.S. foreign policy means more than just signing statements; it means taking critical actions such as helping establish an Egypt human rights monitoring mechanism through the U.N. And it means ending the business-as-usual of perpetual blank checks of military aid for al-Sisi, providing political cover and risking its use by security forces to commit grave human rights violations. Until then, promises and commitments in the U.S. approach to human rights in Egypt will remain empty and hollow.
No country’s government can be an exception. Not Egypt’s, not anyone.