Reframing Egyptian-American relations: Checks are the password

During the 2019 US election campaign, presidential candidate Joe Biden was blunt when he said there were no more “coddling for dictators at the expense of American national security and their interests.” Then it became even franker when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi singled out in a tweet that there are no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator (former President Donald).”

Over the course of about five months, after he arrived at the White House, Biden carried out what he said. The American references to Egypt seemed “negative,” carrying only criticism of the human rights file, even if these months included approval of the sale of weapons. These statements and the length of the lack of communication between the US President and the head of one of the largest countries in the Middle East were enough to bet on them by the speeches of the Egyptian opposition. The statements of the Egyptian opposition leaders came out calling for the new US administration to support freedoms, democracy, and the rights of peoples and the weak, to abandon support for dictatorships and tyrannical regimes, open the field of freedoms, release political detainees, and allow the return of political life.

Immediately after Biden won his congratulations, the Muslim Brotherhood called on the elected US administration to review its “politics of support and support for dictatorships.” However, it seems that these bets need to be “reviewed,” following the telephone communication and mutual praise between the two presidents against the backdrop of the recent Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip. The matter did not stop at the phone conversation between the two presidents. It went beyond that with the visit of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Egypt and the meeting with Sisi himself.

It was a delicate position for Blinken. He has repeatedly said that human rights are central to Biden’s foreign policy, and human rights are not something Sisi would prefer. He jails and tortures dissidents before being accused of ordering the shooting of peaceful protesters. But Al-Sisi, as Egyptian leaders before him did, helped defuse the escalation between Israel and the Palestinian factions. So Blinken made a high-profile visit to thank her, a move that Sisi is trying to take advantage of to influence Washington and avoid criticism.

Egypt has long turned its recognition of Israel into an alliance in which US officials are leaning in the other direction regarding Human Rights abuses. H.E. Heller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says, “The recent crisis reminded Washington of a clear and present fact, that there is no capital in the region that has practical and direct relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians; except Cairo.”

The Biden administration capped its warm exchange with Sisi, with a request for $1.38 billion, the highest possible number of annual aid to Egypt, for congressional approval. Following this announcement, a coalition of human rights organizations expressed their “strong disappointment” with the US administration’s decision. They said: “President Biden’s campaign slogan was: “No blank checks” for the Egyptian regime. So Washington requested to provide the aids that the United States has given to Egypt since 1979 despite the deterioration of its human rights record. This means that it has practically given Al-Sisi another check.”

It is noteworthy that Biden’s checks are not blank. It is pre-paid. Al-Sisi paid for the new US changes by solving the Palestinian issue, the American weapons deal, and (maybe) stopping the Russian arms deals. On the other hand, Biden’s administration will pay by admitting the regime, phone-call between Al-Sisi and Biden, attempts to solve the GERD problem, and waiving Human Rights conditions.

However, the head of the Foundation for Democracy in Egypt in America, Samia Harris, said that despite what happened, this development in relations between Sisi and Biden could not be described as a restoration of relations as they were during the Trump era, but rather the strategic interests and “checks” that Biden mentioned during his speech about dictators. She added, “Everything, in contrast, has a relative retraction by America from its defense of the human rights file in Egypt, in exchange for Cairo’s achievement of a sustainable calm file to preserve Israel’s security.” Harris continued: “The more this file advances and develops into a prisoner exchange deal or a formula for re-negotiating between Israel and the Palestinians, the more American talk about the human rights file declines.”

Perhaps Blinken’s statement, during a hearing in Congress a few days ago, is evidence of what Harris said when he told lawmakers, “I think there has been progressed in some areas” related to human rights in Egypt. Before adding: “However, when it comes to freedom of expression and when it comes to civil society organizations, there are important problems, and we need to address them with our Egyptian partners, and we are doing… we hope and expect progress on this field.”

Essam Abdel Shafi, professor of political science and director of the Egyptian Institute for Studies, stresses the loss of the Egyptian opposition from this rapprochement between the Biden administration and the Egyptian regime. He stresses that the Biden administration is now facing a priority, which is protecting Israel’s security, and there will be an American keenness to rapprochement with Sisi to achieve this. In return, Biden will give up parts of his agenda in the human rights file in favor of this priority.

Former Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Orabi agreed with him when he said that issues such as the Renaissance Dam, Gaza, Libya, and Iraq are files related to the region’s stability, and reducing the tension arising from the continuation of these problems will be the focus of future US-Egyptian interaction. Despite that, He asserted that the human rights file would remain one of the controversial issues between the two countries and one of the side files that exist in the context of relations.

Concerning the GERD and its developments, journalist Yahya Ghanem says that Egypt has not yet submitted to the United States, which makes it stand by it. He pointed out that Biden’s administration just emphasized negotiations and that there is no military solution to the crisis. Despite what Egypt offers to the United States, Ghanem ruled out that Washington would stand by Cairo after calming the atmosphere, pointing out that the approach to building dams was an American plan in place since the fifties of the last century. He pointed out that Egypt needs to provide a great service to America and not only to Israel, to obtain Washington’s support in the dam crisis, before adding: “But what is this service?