Biden and Sisi: A favourite dictator no more?

Biden and Sisi: A favourite dictator no more?
Analysis: While Biden has criticised Trump's support for Sisi, the president-elect has a mixed legacy when it comes to supporting human rights and democracy in Egypt.
5 min read
20 November, 2020
Sisi has overseen Egypt's worst crackdown on human rights in decades. [Getty]
The presidential race in the United States had divided Egyptians for weeks. While activists and opposition figures pinned their hopes on Joe Biden, pro-regime citizens voiced full support for incumbent president Donald Trump, who has been on good terms with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi over the past four years. 

Egyptian private satellite TV channels and other media outlets loyal to the regime repeatedly over-analysed the contest, accusing Biden of being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, legally designated a terrorist group in Egypt since 2013. 

'Ikhwanophobia' often appeared on the surface as the Egyptian media and press personified Biden as the bogeyman who would bring back the Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt's political scene, even though most members of the stigmatised group have either been imprisoned or are in self-imposed exile. 

Some writers and TV presenters even admitted that human rights violations had been committed against dissidents, an issue that Biden recurrently vowed to take a firm stance against. Yet for regime supporters, such actions are often deemed justifiable for Sisi to be able to defend the country against so-called acts of terrorism. 

On the other hand, social media activists engaged in a war of words with Sisi's supporters who backed Trump, to the extent that, at some point, it seemed as if the US poll was taking place in Egypt.

During his campaign, Biden criticised Trump's support for Sisi, implying a possible change in US policy

Moments after Biden's victory was declared on 7 November, Egyptian media outlets shifted to the least desirable scenario, changing their rhetoric to be relatively at peace with him being the head of the world's most powerful country. Sisi himself was the first Arab president to congratulate Biden, apparently in a bid to secure his upcoming status with the US administration to come.

A favourite dictator no more

During his campaign, Biden criticised Trump's support for Sisi, implying a possible change in American policies towards Cairo if he won the election.

Read more: Weaponised censorship: The final demise
of free expression in Egypt's media

Trump and his administration turned a blind eye to hundreds of documented human rights violations committed against the opposition and activists in Egypt, completely ignoring reports released by the US State DepartmentHuman Rights Watch and other local and international rights groups.

In a July tweet, Biden warned Sisi, saying if elected president there would be "no more blank checks for Trump's 'favourite dictator'." During last year's G7 summit, Trump asked about Sisi, saying: "where's my favourite dictator?" a nickname that made news headlines at the time.  

Sisi has been accused by rights groups of overseeing Egypt's worst crackdown on human rights in decades, with thousands of his critics behind bars. Some suffered medical negligence and were left to die slowly, while dozens of others were executed.

Biden's threats seem to have paid off as the Egyptian government released hundreds of political detainees a few days prior to the poll results. The latest of them were five relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan, who were subjected to forced disappearance for months.

Sisi has been accused by rights groups of overseeing Egypt's worst crackdown on human rights in decades

Biden himself had earlier highlighted Soltan's case as he criticised Sisi, which prompted activists to believe that the move was a kind of "retracting" by the Egyptian regime after his victory had become imminent.

In recent days, however, any initial signs of conciliation seem to have vanished. On 19 November, Egypt detained three employees of leading human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), after they met with Western ambassadors in Cairo. Amnesty International called the arrests a "chilling escalation" of the crackdown on civil society in Egypt.

A messiah?

The pressing question now is whether Biden will be the long-awaited messiah who will free Egyptians from suppression. Egyptian Human rights lawyer Fahd El-Banna is not optimistic about Biden's possible role in altering Sisi's policies towards human rights and democracy in Egypt.

Read more: What's at stake for the Middle East's autocrats as a Biden victory looms?

"I think Biden will cautiously support democracy in the Middle East, while the Egyptian government will continue to release a limited number of detainees in the coming period as a means of saving face so as not to look as if Egypt received orders from Biden," Banna told The New Arab.

"There are no guarantees that the new US administration will change its stance towards human rights infringements in Egypt as Biden will likely have more important matters to address in other countries," he added. Another rights lawyer, Negad El-Borei, agrees with Banna.

"Human rights in Egypt represent an internal matter. It can only be solved by dialogue between the concerned parties in order to reach an accord. As long as this dialogue is not present, there won't be any changes on the ground," El-Borei told The New Arab.

Eventually, both Biden and the Egyptian regime will likely find common ground that serves their mutual interests in the Middle East

"No US president can solve this issue, like the case with Biden's predecessors and his successors in the future," he argued. Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at Nile University, also believes Biden is no saviour for human rights in Egypt. "You have to fight your own wars. Nobody will free Egyptians except themselves," Sadek told The New Arab.

"In a nutshell, the Egyptian opposition has become fragile over the years, whereas Biden's ability to take action as to civil rights is quite feeble given his other interests in the region and his agenda. What he said against Sisi was only for the benefit of his electoral campaign," he added.

Read more: Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a
new, totalitarian era in Egypt

Questionable stance

Despite Biden's fierce criticism of Sisi, he was against the ouster of late long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak back in 2011, a few days after the January 25 revolution erupted, referring to him as an "ally" not a "dictator."

However, Biden's recent views of Sisi's policies pose the question of whether he will truly take a different stance towards Sisi or if his condemnation was just a means to an end. As Henry Kissinger, America's most notorious secretary of state, once said: "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests."

"We are in 2020 not 2011. The region has tremendously changed after the Arab Spring. Eventually, both Biden and the Egyptian regime will likely find common ground that serves their mutual interests in the Middle East," Sadek concluded.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue

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