How Biden failed his own litmus test on Egypt

How Biden failed his own litmus test on Egypt
Comment: The Sisi regime will take Biden's exoneration of Beblawi as a sign that the new administration is willing to informally green light its human rights abuses, writes Sam Hamad.
5 min read
09 Apr, 2021
The Biden administration dismissed the case Mohamad Soltan brought against El Beblawi [Getty]
During his successful election campaign, Biden famously pledged that under his presidency there would be "no more blank checks" for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Donald Trump's self-proclaimed "favourite dictator". 

In the same tweet, Biden referenced other Egyptian-Americans who had been victims of Sisi, including human rights activist Mohamad Soltan

Whether or not Biden will indeed issue blank checks to Sisi remains to be seen, but the omens are not looking good, and Soltan is at the heart of it. Soltan was shot, arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment during the Rabaa massacre, with his only "crime" being peacefully protesting the anti-democratic coup that brought Sisi to power in 2013.

He remained a political prisoner for two years, and endured vicious torture. After a global campaign, he was eventually freed in 2015. 

In 2020, Soltan brought a landmark lawsuit in a US district court in Washington DC against the man he alleged was responsible for his arrest and torture, namely former Egyptian prime minister Hezam el-Beblawi.

Had the lawsuit been successful, it would've been a major blow to the global impunity with which Sisi and his henchmen operate - something akin to the successful conviction of some of Assad's torturers in Europe. It may even have had more impact, given the US is a firm ally and financial-diplomatic patron of Egypt. 

It speaks of the dawning but unsurprising reality that Biden's stance against 'Trump's favourite dictator' was plain old cynical electioneering

Had Biden got behind the lawsuit, it would've sent an unprecedented signal that he intended to take his campaign promises and slogans about prioritising human rights seriously. Holding leading regime figures accountable even in absentia in the US, could've sent shockwaves of fear through a regime that uses torture on a daily basis. 

But, as is all too common, not only did the Biden administration fail to back the lawsuit, they intervened to effectively quash it. Lawyers for the US State department scrambled together a defence of Beblawi based on "diplomatic unity", saying in a statement, "El Beblawi held diplomatic status at the time when the suit was commenced," and thus "claims falling with the scope of his immunity" should be dismissed by the court.

As Soltan pointed out in his response, this was not some legal roadblock that the US had no way of getting round, but rather a conscious decision by the Biden administration to ensure that Beblawi couldn't be held to account.  Immunity, in a case involving torture, could have been withdrawn.

That they sided with Beblawi speaks of the dawning but unsurprising reality that Biden's stance against "Trump's favourite dictator" was plain old cynical electioneering on his part. 

Read more: 
Biden administration asks US court to throw out case against ex-Egyptian PM accused of torture

The Biden administration has already shown its weakness in this area when last month it sold $200 million of Raytheon missiles to the Sisi regime at the same time that the regime was persecuting the families of Soltan and other Egyptian-American activists. 

On March 22, Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken had issued a press release bearing the title "Promoting Accountability for Human Rights Abuse with Our Partners," but just a few weeks later his department is, to quote Soltan, "obstructing a legal path to accountability" and "enabling the Egyptian regime's continued impunity".

And that is the most dangerous aspect of this - the fact that the Sisi regime will take this as another sign that the new administration, like the old one, is willing to informally green light its human rights abuses. With the EU similarly disinterested in Sisi, his regime has a global pass on its crimes.

Egyptian lives, including those of the families of Soltan and other exiled human rights activists in the US and around the world are in danger, as the regime targets them to silence external Egyptian criticism of the regime. The US exoneration of Beblawi without even a second thought will give an already vicious regime new incentives. 

The good news is that there are dissenting voices in Congress on this question, and last year, legislation passed that makes $75 million in aid to Egypt contingent on the release of political prisoners. $75 million is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of dollars up for grabs in the formal and informal economic, military and diplomatic special relationship between the US and Egypt. But the legislation could serve as a final test for Biden on how serious he is about changing the US's role as a financier of tyranny in Egypt and globally.

If the Sisi regime decides to ignore the law, and waive the $75 million, thus demonstrating its obstinance on even basic human rights provisions, Biden has the opportunity and obligation to withhold more aid and force Egypt into line.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Democratic Congressman Andy Levin put it plainly: "We don't understand why it makes sense to give massive military aid to a country that doesn't appear to face foreign threats… and… that is repressing its own people… What crucial role is Egypt playing right now, and what justifies us giving them all this aid?"

The US exoneration of Beblawi without even a second thought will give an already vicious regime new incentives

When Biden defeated Trump last year, he was entirely correct to speak to the world about democracy and human rights, given that Trump's brand of politics is playing out in much more brutal ways across the world, including in Egypt. 

But his words are meaningless and even self-defeating if they are not met with appropriately commensurate global action. As Soltan puts it, Biden's stance "illustrates to victims that the US is back to business as usual… with dictators," as well as more generally having the global effect of "degrad[ing] confidence in democratic governance and rule of law".

If Biden's administration simply repeats the dictator-friendly policies of Trump and most other US presidents, it will only serve to boost the politics of the ex-president he defeated. 

Sam Hamad is a writer and History Phd candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.