The Biden administration frequently proclaims it is placing human rights and democracy at the “center” of U.S. foreign policy. Yet it has disgracefully chosen to cozy up to vicious dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by hosting a high-level, bilateral “Strategic Dialogue” on November 8-9. The State Department even named Egypt a “vital partner” in the process.
Despite months of modest U.S. human rights entreaties to Cairo wrapped in the friendly language of “partnership,” the al-Sisi regime has so far failed to make any meaningful progress on human rights since President Joe Biden took office almost one year ago. Instead of conditioning the Strategic Dialogue upon Egypt carrying out even minimal steps on human rights—steps that al-Sisi could take with the stroke of a pen—the Biden administration rewarded his repressive regime with a prestigious meeting.
That the Biden administration would hold the Strategic Dialogue now, and offer to al-Sisi’s regime public praise and various goodies to “deepen cooperation,” is the latest sign of its hollow approach to human rights when it comes to authoritarian “partners.”
Adding insult to injury, the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of the Strategic Dialogue made only a brief, superficial reference to human rights. It inexplicably “welcomed” al-Sisi’s charade of a “National Human Rights Strategy” and failed to acknowledge the horrifying crackdown occurring inside Egypt. The Joint Statement also regrettably said the United States “welcomed” Egypt as the host of next year’s UN Climate Summit, although the human rights emergency there should immediately disqualify Egypt from such a role.
The al-Sisi regime directly undermines U.S. interests by systematically violating the rights of Egyptian citizens, targeting U.S. citizens and their Egypt-based family members for speaking out about human rights, and supporting the derailment of democratic transitions in Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia. No government engaged in such behavior can plausibly be called a “strategic partner” by any U.S. administration, let alone one that has pledged to “stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur.”
Troublingly, the Joint Statement also indicated that the administration has inked a $1 billion arms deal with Egypt for Apache helicopters, the very equipment that Egypt’s military used to attack a group of foreign tourists in 2015, leading to the deaths of 12 civilians and almost killing April Corley, a U.S. citizen who continues to fight to receive fair compensation from the Egyptian government for her injuries. The statement also noted the United States’ intent to strengthen cooperation with Egypt’s judiciary and law enforcement—two regime entities heavily implicated in egregious human rights abuses, including mass arrests, draconian sentences in sham trials, enforced disappearances, torture (even of minors), sexual abuse, and extrajudicial killings.
Also, disturbingly, as the Strategic Dialogue was underway, Egypt’s judiciary chose to move forward with two of the regime’s most high-profile and outrageous prosecutions of political and civil society figures despite international outcry.
On Monday, the very day that Secretary of State Antony Blinken warmly greeted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the State Department, a Cairo emergency court concluded the trial of activist and writer Alaa Abdel Fattah, lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim and announced that a verdict would be issued on December 20. The three have been held in pretrial detention for more than two years, the legal maximum in Egypt. Abdel Fattah, a member of the “No To Military Trials” movement, has been subjected to inhumane prison conditions, including being denied a mattress, books and newspapers, and outdoor exercise. He is reportedly is suicidal. The trial has been a travesty and has made a mockery of fair trial guarantees, with the court denying the defendants’ lawyers a copy of the case files and refusing to allow the lawyers to confer with their clients or deliver arguments in their defense.
Then, yesterday, the lawyer for Strong Egypt Party leader Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh revealed that his client and 24 others would stand trial in an emergency court on November 24 on bogus “terrorism” charges. Aboul-Fotouh, a 2012 presidential candidate, has been held in pretrial detention for more than four years after criticizing the regime on Al Jazeera. Despite suffering several heart attacks in detention, Aboul-Fotouh has reportedly been denied medical treatment in what rights groups have described as a “prolonged death sentence.”
The Biden administration has to engage with Egypt, as it does with other authoritarian governments, but should hold off on implementing the commitments and weapons sale announced in the Joint Statement, as well as on offering further undue praise, until this brutal regime improves on human rights. The administration is well aware of what improvements are needed: The State Department’s very own 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices describes Egypt’s appalling human rights abuses in detail. Clear pressure on a dictator, not accommodation, is the way to “center” human rights in U.S. policy toward Egypt.
Photo Credit: Freddie Everett / U.S. Department of State on Flickr