Would Biden really put a stop to blank cheques for Egypt's Sisi?

Would Biden really put a stop to blank cheques for Egypt's Sisi?
Comment: Only a Biden administration would be capable of holding Sisi's regime accountable. But whether it would is another matter, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
14 Oct, 2020
The Obama-Biden administration saw an ally in former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak [Getty]
It was on January 27, 2011 that then US vice president Joe Biden said on PBS NewsHour that he would not refer to Hosni Mubarak as a dictator. This was of course during the eventually successful January 25 revolution that toppled Mubarak - a time when Egyptian protesters were being murdered on the streets by the brutal security forces of the Mubarak regime.  

As ridiculous as Biden's words were, this was not a careless error. It was the policy of the Obama administration to support the vicious tyrant Mubarak come what may, against the millions of Egyptians calling for an end to his regime of brutality, malfeasance and kleptocracy. 

This, after all, has been US policy since Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords, normalising relations with Israel and bringing Egypt firmly into the US sphere of influence. 

It is against this backdrop that Egypt has become the second largest recipient of US military aid, behind only Israel, further engendering the Egyptian Armed Forces to establish themselves as the dominant social and economic ruling force in the country. 

Not only is the tyrannical nature of the Egyptian regime understood by the US political establishment, including Biden himself, but they have utilised it in the past. 

Who could forget the chilling words of CIA agent Bob Baer regarding the US' extraordinary rendition programme? "If you want [a prisoner] to be tortured you send them to Syria," he said, "[But] if you want someone to disappear - never to see them again - you send them to Egypt." 

In fact, you can trace a direct line right from Camp David to Biden's lamentable support for Mubarak to Donald Trump's infamous declaration that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is his "favourite dictator". As one Egyptian friend sarcastically quipped to me about Trump's gushing over Sisi, "well at least he admits he's a dictator". 

It was the policy of the Obama administration to support the vicious tyrant Mubarak come what may

But on the part of Biden, things are somewhat different now, at least in terms of rhetoric. Following the release of the US student Mohamed Amashah by the Sisi regime in July this year after almost 500 days in prison without trial, Biden tweeted his relief at the release, also referencing Sisi's "torturing and exiling" of Mohamed Soltan and the late Sarah Hegazi.

But it was Biden's last sentence that put the cat among the pigeons: "No more blank checks for Trump's 'favorite dictator'", the presidential frontrunner wrote. Could it be under the potential presidency of Joe Biden that the US finally stops financially underwriting the Egyptian Armed Forces? 

If Biden's record as vice president is anything to go by, it's very possible that his motivations are more about party political attacks than any genuine will to substantially change US foreign policy towards Egypt. It was under Obama, after all, that the decision was taken not to call Sisi's blood-soaked coup against the elected president a coup, due to a law that states the US government can't fund any regime that came to power through a military coup. 

Contrary to a certain liberal narrative in the US, the Obama administration did not meaningfully attempt to curtail Sisi's mass violence against Egyptians.

There was no substantial attempt by Obama to stop US aid to Egypt based on Sisi's human rights violations - he simply held the aid back while the bodies in the streets of Rabaa and Nadha were still warm, but then released it once Sisi established "stability". 

That said, it would be remiss to imagine that Biden's words are entirely without meaning. Though Trump's personal affection for Sisi has certainly emboldened him as he ruthlessly transitions Egypt into a totalitarian state, the reality is that Egypt's geopolitical importance is now hugely diminished. 

Egypt remains the largest Arabic-speaking nation, but its influence in the region under Sisi is on the wane. Its role as the "Arab" fig leaf for Israeli hegemony over the Palestinian territories is now challenged by financial superpowers in the Gulf, such as the UAE, which has recently normalised relations with Israel.

What exactly does Egypt bring to the table? How does it justify being one of America's geopolitical favourites? As glimpsed by its failures in the Sinai, its failed intervention in Libya, its impotence in negotiations with Ethiopia over its dam project, or its major economic subservience to the UAE, Sisi's Egypt, despite its self-image as a regional superpower, has become the sick man of the MENA region. 

Even in the entirely outlandish circumstances of a breakdown of relations between Israel and Egypt, what threat could Egypt's dilapidated armed forces pose to the nuclear-armed Israel? 

Coinciding with this, over both the course of the Obama and the Trump administrations, the US's active role in the Middle East has declined, pivoting towards a more isolationist foreign policy instead. This means that Egypt's priority as a recipient of military aid, especially as Covid-19 is breaking apart economies all around the world, is perhaps no longer the same quality, or priority it was for the US in the past. 

There has also been something of a shift in Congress, at least among Democrats, on the issue of human rights in Egypt. Not only is this an example of the difference between Republicans and Democrats, but it's also a good indicator of the difference between a leader like Biden, who would preach respect for America's democratic institutions, and one like Trump, who wants to subvert them.

Though the Sisi regime would never openly admit it, the uncertainty of the US-Egypt relationship hangs over it. It's certainly been one of the motivations behind Sisi shoring up and expanding his ties with Russia - if Trump and Sisi are similar, the Egyptian tyrant sees a genuine kindred spirit in Putin. 

If Biden's record as vice president is anything to go by, it's very possible that his motivations are more about party political attacks

Though Russia can't offer the kind of military aid the US serves up every year, we've seen it conduct large-scale military and economic deals with Sisi, while Egypt is one of the few countries that will get access to Russia's Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccination. In addition, last year Egypt signed up to $15 billion in investment agreements with China, as it continues to assume the mantle of the global hegemon.  

Of course, it's worth noting again that none of this lives up to the financial and technological sureties and geopolitical prestige of US military aid, which is why the Sisi regime will be hoping to keep hold of it. And though much of this is conjecture, one thing is certain: if the US is ever going to break with Egypt over its pervasive human rights abuses, it will not do so under the rule of President Trump. 

Only with the Democrats in the White House, could actions such as severing financial aid to tyrants like Sisi, one day become the basis of a world order that defies the logics of the illiberalism, authoritarianism and tyranny that Trump and, more brutally, Sisi both represent.

To paraphrase Orwell, progress only triumphs through deeds and not words.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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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.