What Trump’s Loss Means for Authoritarian Leaders

From Cairo to Riyadh, autocrats are nervous about what a Biden administration might mean for their relationship with Washington.

Saudi King Salman (R) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) receive Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Neom site near Maqnah, Saudi Arabia on Aug. 14, 2018.
Saudi King Salman (R) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) receive Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Neom site near Maqnah, Saudi Arabia on Aug. 14, 2018. AFP via Getty Images

When Joe Biden said on Wednesday night that “democracy works,” he struck a chord for many democrats around the world, not just for the Americans who voted him into office. But just as progressives inside and outside the United States have been rejoicing, relieved to see their faith in democracy validated, democracy’s opponents have been nervously following the U.S. presidential election and betting on a win for Donald Trump, which they did not get.

Authoritarian rulers to whom democracy is a threat, most notably in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are a case in point—and it is easy to see why Biden’s victory has frightened the two countries’ leaders. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would have adopted undemocratic policies and overseen human rights violations whether or not Trump was in office, but his presidency allowed them to do this with more confidence and ease. They knew that they would not face a serious moral challenge from Washington no matter how far they went in their suppression of their citizens.

During Trump’s four years as president, proponents of democracy and human rights have been remarkably lonely and overpowered in an international arena that suddenly looked very different than it had prior to 2016. In the summer of 2018, for example, when Canada’s foreign minister called for the release of two political detainees in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh overreacted, expelling the Canadian ambassador, suspending flights to and from Toronto, withdrawing thousands of Saudi students from Canadian schools and universities, and freezing future trade and investment with the North American country. More shocking than the Saudi storm of punitive measures against Ottawa was Washington’s reluctance to come to the aid of its neighbor and longtime partner.

But Riyadh’s biggest prize from Trump came a few months later, when the former got away with the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. He was dismembered with a bone saw in his own country’s consulate in Turkey, the world was shocked, and the CIA concluded that his assassination was ordered by the Saudi crown prince.

Despite the overwhelming evidence from his own intelligence agencies, Trump could not muster more than subtle and indirect criticisms from which he quickly retreated. Then he reaffirmed that Saudi Arabia had “been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!”

Another close Trump ally is Egypt’s Sisi, whom the outgoing president bluntly called “my favorite dictator” at the G-7 summit in France in 2019. Sisi had already begun a severe crackdown on opponents and activists when Barack Obama was in the White House. The estimated number of political prisoners in the country currently is at least 60,000.

Enforced disappearances are so frequent that they have become normalized. Jails are overcrowded, and there are numerous reports of torture in Egyptian prisons. While this crackdown was already in full swing before Trump was elected in 2016, its persistence with continued severity, since Sisi took power in 2014 and until now, is rare and worse than it ever was in the past few decades—even under Hosni Mubarak.

The regime had been largely politically isolated at the international level, especially after Sisi, then-Egypt’s military chief, oversaw the removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in 2013. Back then, Obama was in the White House, and he responded to what his administration saw as an undemocratic move in Egypt by imposing a partial, temporary cut of U.S. aid to Egypt.

Eventually aid was restored in 2015, but bilateral relations remained strained after Obama had sent a clear message the he was not comfortable with being perceived as friendly toward autocratic rulers. At the time, critics saw his reaction as futile, but the world has now lived to realize its significance, compared with Trump’s policies and attitude toward Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman, and like-minded politicians from Brazil to Hungary to Belarus, where Aleksandr Lukashenko—another beleaguered leader refusing to step down—echoed Trump a few days ago, saying the U.S. election was fraudulent.

But it is not only about foreign policy. The cause of today’s anxiety among nondemocratic rulers is not just about whatever concrete differences that they expect between Trump’s and Biden’s policies. Dictators also fear the reinforcement of the powerful idea that “democracy works.” The Egyptians who are rejoicing today are happy to see Trump’s indecency go, but they are also inspired by democracy’s self-corrective mechanisms.

No matter how much Trump attempted to use the powers given to him by the U.S. Constitution to change the system in his favor (e.g., rushing to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court), the system still gave the American people the means to vote him out of office. That doesn’t happen in Sisi’s Egypt; when Sami Anan announced his intention to run for president against Sisi in 2018, Sisi put him in jail—and the matter was closed.

The Egyptian people did not give up. A year later, they marched in rare protests against Sisi’s rule even as they fully realized the risk they were taking under a president who has been rounding up protesters en masse and locking them up until they are forgotten about. Then they got arrested, and the protests were suppressed.

Biden’s election is rekindling hope. This is about America, but it is more than just America. If Biden really sees the United States as a “beacon for the globe,” and many Americans and non-Americans are eager to believe him, he should break with Trump’s policies toward autocratic rulers, including Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman.

This is not a call for an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. The United States is already intervening in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia by virtue of generous military aid, arms sales, and other means of leverage that have more or less persisted under subsequent U.S. administrations for decades. These are realities on the ground, and they can be, and have been, used as bargaining chips.

Nor is this a call for Biden to boss his counterparts around in a way or tone that could rightly bring criticism and valid accusations of U.S. neoimperialism, to terminate long-standing relations, or to dismiss the importance of the Egyptian state’s war against Islamic State affiliates in the Northern Sinai region. Rather, it is a call for Biden to be true to democracy and the democratic values that his election symbolizes. For instance, a release of political detainees in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is one achievable step that Biden should pursue.

It is important to prove now more than ever that democracy matters—at home and abroad—as these values were feared to be at stake under Trump. With him gone, it is time to champion them once again.

Sara Khorshid is writing her Ph.D. at Canada’s Western University on the history of U.S.-Egyptian mutual perceptions. She worked as a journalist and columnist in Egypt for 15 years. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, HuffPost, Jadaliyya, and numerous other outlets. Twitter: @SaraKhorshid