Analysis |

For Biden, Human Rights in Egypt Will Have to Wait

Global human rights is a key pillar of Biden’s foreign policy, but it comes with many exemptions

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at the United Nations in New York in 2018.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at the United Nations in New York in 2018.Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price issued a sharply worded response earlier this year to a question about withholding $130 million of U.S. aid to Egypt over human rights conditions in the country.

“Just as we raise human rights, just as we raise our values. These two things, they’re not separate, They’re inextricably linked,” he said. “If we don’t stick up for our values, if we don’t stick up for human rights, we’re not sticking up for our interests. We recognize that, and we can do both.” Price also noted that civil society in Egypt was repressed, and human rights were violated.

On Monday, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is expected to hear another American lecture about the need to correct his country’s human rights situation, to release some 16 political prisoners, to allow human rights groups that have been shut down to operate again and to pass laws grating freedom of expression. But Shoukry, who is to land in Washington for a two-day visit, comes with a briefcase full of goodies and a lobbying effort costing Egypt some $65,000 a month. For the first time in decades, Egypt lifted its state of emergency (but instead passed a war-on-terror law that grants its security forces broad powers).

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi hosted Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and even flew the Israeli flag during the summit. Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel accepted a request from Washington to work his magic on Sudanese General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, who launched the military coup in Sudan, and bring back the temporary government he brought down. Egypt, Shoukry is expected to say, is the only country that can calm the border between Israel and Egypt thanks to the influence it has over Hamas, and it is also the country that could end the affair of Israel’s missing soldiers and civilians. Aren’t all of these things worth $130 million?

Israel's Naftali Bennett and Egypt's Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm al-Sheikh on Monday.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

And if Washington so worked about the human rights situation in Egypt, why doesn’t it take similar steps against Israel? Shoukry won’t present this argument out loud, of course, but it will float above the talks. Because Israel has shut down human rights groups and conveyed explanations to Washington that didn’t persuade the officials there. Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of the occupation.

Freezing financial aid as a means of pressure to improve human rights is nothing new. The Obama and the Trump administrations both stopped some monetary aid, which was released in exchange for insignificant gestures that allowed their secretaries of state to say that Egypt is working to improve its record in this area. U.S. President Joe Biden went further and declared the promotion of human rights worldwide as a key pillar of his foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. But this policy comes with many exemptions.

For example, sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad over the massacring of Syrian civilians are about to be reduced, with the consent and even the encouragement of the United States. To save Lebanon’s economy, Egypt and Jordan will provide it with gas and oil. The problem is that the pipeline leading the fuel and electricity to be supplied by Jordan runs through Syria, which will be rewarded in an as-yet unknown way. That is enough to give Assad legitimacy and status as a partner in a project being advanced by the United States.

True, these supply lines are intended to stop shipments of oil from Iran and breathe new life into Lebanon’s economy, but how does this project go together with Washington’s demand that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain stop the normalization they are promoting with Syria? If Lebanon’s future is at the forefront of Biden’s mind, why doesn’t he pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its draconian boycott of Lebanon over statements by that country’s Information Minister George Kordahi? All Kordahi said is what the United States has stated repeatedly, that the war in Yemen is useless and that the Houthi rebels are fighting for their rights.

If human rights and American values are synonymous with and serve the interests of the United States, how do nuclear negotiations with Iran conform to these values, when the U.S. hasn’t raised these issues at all during the talks? It turns out that involving these elements – human rights, American values and effective foreign policy – is a worthy, even high-minded aspiration, but their application is far from perfect. Freezing $130 million that Egypt receives as a part of the Camp David Accords is therefore no more than a fig leaf that the U.S. government is obligated to by law.

International, American and Egyptian human rights groups have criticized the decision on the claim that the sum is too small and will not impress the Egyptian regime. They demand that at least $300 million be suspended. But the administration doesn’t want to go that far; it needs Egypt, especially when Biden wants to distance himself from the Middle East and allow his ally to promote his policies in his place.

Biden’s advisers are fully aware of the studies done in recent decades showing that granting or withholding foreign aid has not really helped promote American interests. This hasn’t been the case in Pakistan, nor in Iraq, Egypt or Israel. Biden was former U.S. President Barack Obama’s vice president when the latter turned a cold shoulder to Sissi after he dislodged the Muslim Brotherhood and took control of the government. Biden himself waited a few months before he picked up the phone and called the Egyptian president. Today he recognizes that Sissi is essential. Human rights in Egypt will have to wait, and the aid that Biden suspended will be restored.

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