US-Egypt strategic dialogue: Human rights and democracy at the bottom of the agenda

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Over 8 and 9 November, an Egyptian delegation led by Egypt’s FM, Sameh Shoukry, was in Washington to hold the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, which is a meeting held to gather senior US and Egyptian officials. The dialogue was established in the 1990s under Bill Clinton’s administration and held periodically since then, except for a pause between 2009 and 2015 due to the Arab uprisings in 2011. The dialogue will be the first under President Joe Biden, who partially suspended US aid to Egypt in September.

The dialogue was decided on the margins of the UN General Assembly last October, and it has been decided that Shoukry will meet with the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. It was reported that Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Asl-Sisi hopes to meet Biden after the latter repeatedly criticised systematic human rights violations in Egypt concluding with a partial suspension of the military aid in a step that is mainly symbolic but also unprecedented.

Notwithstanding, human rights and democracy appears to be marginal in this dialogue, as it came among more urgent issues including the conflict with Ethiopia regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the military coup in Sudan. The situation is reminiscent of what happened in May, when Biden, then the freshly elected boss of the White House, who was highly critical of Sisi, contacted Sisi to discuss the escalation in Gaza between the Palestinian resistance and Israel. The call was indicative that there are a lot of issues that could be a negotiating card used by Sisi when he bargains with the US administration over democracy and human rights in Egypt. Over the past months, Sisi was keen on showing that he had close ties to Israel through several steps topped by his meeting with Israel’s PM Neftali Bennet in Sharm Al-Sheikh in September, in a classical quibble used by the Arab tyrants to please the USA.

On the other hand, improvement of the ever-deteriorating situation in Egypt does not appear to be a high priority for Biden. Instead, the latter appears to be pressured by the democratic lobby inside the democratic party and congress to address the Egyptian issue. For Biden, Egypt is just a territorial state that he addresses only when he needs to.

The regional situation has repeatedly served Sisi, first with the escalation in Gaza, where he demonstrated effective engagement with Hamas through close ties between its senior leader in Gaza Yehia Senwar and the Egyptian General Intelligence. These ties were built without disturbing relations with Israel. Then, with the complications in Sudan, Egypt appeared to be the closest ally to Sudan’s military refusing to sign a joint statement with the USA, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Emirates against the coup. This situation made Egypt a vital gate to pressure Sudan’s military to ameliorate the escalation against the civil opposition. Finally, the civil war in Ethiopia came to totally defame Ethiopia’s hardliner PM Abiy Ahmed and to shake his throne. Sisi appeared to be correct that Ahmed was reluctant to sign a binding deal.

All of that says that there is little chance that real US pressure could be vital in convincing Sisi to reverse his repressive policies against Egypt’s media, civil society, human rights defenders and opponents aside from reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.