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How Sisi Beat Biden’s Human Rights Policy

Egypt is again proving useful to the United States—for now.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives at United Nations.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24, 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has had a few good months. The Turkish government has been bending over backward to improve bilateral ties that have been badly strained since Egypt’s July 2013 coup. Egypt’s diplomats have been involved in brokering agreements with Jordan and Iraq aimed at broadening and deepening cooperation. And most recently, Sisi played an important role in securing the May 21 cease-fire that brought the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to an end. Egypt’s constructive role during the conflict earned former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator” not one but two phone calls from U.S. President Joe Biden.

The telephone conversations between the leaders were instructive. Biden had been freezing out his Egyptian counterpart because of the profound repression that has gripped the country since Sisi came to power. The decision not to reward the Egyptian leader with a phone call earlier was part and parcel of the Biden administration’s emphasis on American foreign-policy values.

But when push came to shove, security and stability won the day. That’s a win for Egypt, where leaders and diplomats seem pleased the recent war in Gaza has proven what they have been saying all along: Egypt is central to regional stability, and, as such, it remains a critical partner for the United States. The Egyptians have just been waiting for the Americans to realize this fact…again. Fair enough. But history also suggests it’s only a matter of time until the United States starts questioning Egypt’s value as an ally again.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has had a few good months. The Turkish government has been bending over backward to improve bilateral ties that have been badly strained since Egypt’s July 2013 coup. Egypt’s diplomats have been involved in brokering agreements with Jordan and Iraq aimed at broadening and deepening cooperation. And most recently, Sisi played an important role in securing the May 21 cease-fire that brought the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to an end. Egypt’s constructive role during the conflict earned former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator” not one but two phone calls from U.S. President Joe Biden.

The telephone conversations between the leaders were instructive. Biden had been freezing out his Egyptian counterpart because of the profound repression that has gripped the country since Sisi came to power. The decision not to reward the Egyptian leader with a phone call earlier was part and parcel of the Biden administration’s emphasis on American foreign-policy values.

But when push came to shove, security and stability won the day. That’s a win for Egypt, where leaders and diplomats seem pleased the recent war in Gaza has proven what they have been saying all along: Egypt is central to regional stability, and, as such, it remains a critical partner for the United States. The Egyptians have just been waiting for the Americans to realize this fact…again. Fair enough. But history also suggests it’s only a matter of time until the United States starts questioning Egypt’s value as an ally again.

The mythology around Egypt’s role in the region is based on the idea that Egyptians can be uniquely helpful at bringing Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arab countries together as well as containing periodic bouts of violence, but that has not always been the case. In the late 1990s, then-Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa gave U.S. diplomats fits when he put up roadblocks to the development of economic ties between Israel and Arab countries. The Egyptians had nothing to do with the Jordan-Israel peace treaty in 1994 and watched from afar last summer when the Abraham Accords were signed. During the 2014 Gaza War, the Egyptians were not a hostile party, but they were nevertheless belligerent, prodding the Israelis to overthrow Hamas—something the Israelis had no intention of doing.

And let’s not forget Egypt is still more than willing to participate in the blockade of Gaza. It is a perfect policy for the Egyptians: They can keep Hamas bottled up and make sure the Israelis don’t try to dump Gaza back in theirs laps. All the while, Egypt gets to stand aside while European governments, the United Nations, and activists heap opprobrium on the Israelis for the poverty, despair, and extreme compunction under which Gazans are forced to live.

The most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza provided an opportunity for Egyptians. Biden, who has evinced little interest in the peace process and related issues, now has a problem on his hands. After 11 days of Israeli air assaults and Hamas rockets, progressives and others want Biden to apply pressure on the Israelis and give greater priority to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So far, Biden has balked at either punishing Israel or stepping into the quicksand that peace negotiations are in favor of a policy aimed at reconstruction, aid, and making life better for Gazans. Here is where Egyptians have sought to build on the work they put in during last month’s cease-fire. Much to the snickering of almost everyone in Washington, Sisi announced $500 million toward Gaza reconstruction—although this figure does not represent actual money for Gaza but rather for Egyptian construction firms doing the work.

Sisi promptly sent a phalanx of bulldozers and other equipment flying the Egyptian flag across the border into Gaza. And there is a YouTube video floating around with drone footage of what seems like miles of tractor trailers all adorned with a livery advertising the Egyptian president’s signature logo, “Long Live Egypt Fund,” ready to enter the Gaza Strip. Say what you want about Sisi’s showmanship, but the extent Egyptians want to pitch in and assist in Gaza helps Biden. Certainly, the Egyptians have their own interests in Gaza, and there is no doubt that Egypt’s firms will profit from the aftermath of the conflict; but the very fact that Sisi basically said, “we are here to help you,” to the Biden administration changes the tenor of bilateral ties. That is going to make it harder to assail the Egyptians for their appalling human rights record. Folks in Washington like to say it does not have to be one or the other, that the United States can both walk the walk on values and chew gum on interests at the same time. But I have yet to see it. Human rights always get bumped down the list of priorities.

Beyond the current moment in Gaza, the Egyptians do not have much to offer. If they can outmaneuver Turkey in Libya, Egypt will be the big dog there, but it is unclear whether that is a net plus for the United States. It could be if Washington is only interested in the potential for stability in Libya, but that is hardly assured. On the Biden administration’s other regional priorities—bringing peace to Yemen and re-joining the Iran nuclear deal—the Egyptians are marginal players with little to offer. In the so-called great-power competition, Egypt is neither going to give up its renewed ties with the Russians—who have become, once again, a source of weaponry for Cairo—or cut ties with its new investor, China. Egypt’s partnerships with U.S. adversaries are likely to be sources of tension in the relationship, but for now, bilateral ties seem to be on a better trajectory than expected given the Egyptian role in Gaza.

The present goodwill does not mean Egyptians are not going to expect some payback, and they want it on Ethiopia and its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam, which is central to Ethiopia’s development plans, poses an existential threat to Egypt as it will reduce the flow of the Nile River, which 100 million Egyptians depend on. Negotiations and talks about talks between Cairo and Addis Ababa, under the auspices of a variety of intermediaries, have gone nowhere. Late in the Trump presidency, the United States sided with Egypt rather than trying to broker a deal. Team Biden backed away from that position but will now confront pressure from the Egyptians to reprieve it. When Biden declared there would be “no more blank checks” for Sisi while running for president, it was easier to imagine a more evenhanded approach to GERD, but then Gaza happened. It remains to be seen whether Sisi can parlay his approach to Israel and the Palestinians into tangible U.S. support for the Egyptian position on the dam, but he is likely to try.

Biden is fond of saying “America is Back,” and now, so it seems, are the Egyptians. The so-called “strategic relationship” between the United States and Egypt never lived up to the hype former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave it. But if Sisi wants to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, no one should be surprised if the Biden administration welcomes the assist.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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