Argument

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It’s Time for Biden to Get Tough on Sisi

Washington should refuse a security waiver and block $300 million in military assistance to Egypt until Cairo cleans up its act on human rights.

By , a nonresident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and a former U.S. diplomat who served in Cairo.
U.S. Secretary of State meets with Egyptian president.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on May 26. ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to Egypt, the United States has long favored the path of least resistance. Unwilling to take serious steps to confront the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present or its own complicity in supporting Cairo through military and economic aid, Washington has often relied on pro-forma criticism of Egypt’s record while largely ignoring the problem in the interest of preserving an uneasy political-military status quo in the region. U.S. President Joe Biden promised to change that course but so far has done the opposite.

Cairo’s role in brokering Middle East peace agreements, its cooperation in fighting terrorism, and its preferential treatment of U.S. warships and military aircraft transiting the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always outweighed any concern about the authoritarian nature of Egypt’s government and its massive human rights abuses. Egypt’s role in “regional stability” was all that mattered. As a former U.S. diplomat who served in Cairo, I had to write that talking point for visiting administration officials and members of Congress, or some version of it, hundreds of times.

The problem is Egypt’s human rights abuses, compounded by poor governance and economic mismanagement, have accelerated domestic instability and terrorism. As the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula have demonstrated, that can have far-reaching regional impacts. Indeed, nonprofit Human Rights First noted “[Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s] brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling ISIS’s growth, as the group recruits supporters in Egypt’s prisons at an accelerating rate.” If Biden is serious about human rights, he now has the leverage to put pressure on Egypt by denying a $300 million security assistance package.

When it comes to Egypt, the United States has long favored the path of least resistance. Unwilling to take serious steps to confront the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present or its own complicity in supporting Cairo through military and economic aid, Washington has often relied on pro-forma criticism of Egypt’s record while largely ignoring the problem in the interest of preserving an uneasy political-military status quo in the region. U.S. President Joe Biden promised to change that course but so far has done the opposite.

Cairo’s role in brokering Middle East peace agreements, its cooperation in fighting terrorism, and its preferential treatment of U.S. warships and military aircraft transiting the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always outweighed any concern about the authoritarian nature of Egypt’s government and its massive human rights abuses. Egypt’s role in “regional stability” was all that mattered. As a former U.S. diplomat who served in Cairo, I had to write that talking point for visiting administration officials and members of Congress, or some version of it, hundreds of times.

The problem is Egypt’s human rights abuses, compounded by poor governance and economic mismanagement, have accelerated domestic instability and terrorism. As the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula have demonstrated, that can have far-reaching regional impacts. Indeed, nonprofit Human Rights First noted “[Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s] brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling ISIS’s growth, as the group recruits supporters in Egypt’s prisons at an accelerating rate.” If Biden is serious about human rights, he now has the leverage to put pressure on Egypt by denying a $300 million security assistance package.


After the 2013 coup that led then-Egyptian defense minister Sisi to take over as president in 2014, his regime imprisoned around 60,000 people on political charges. Thousands of people were held indefinitely under abusive conditions, subjected to torture, lacked medical care, and were often without access to due process. The government has since cracked down sharply on civic and political freedoms and security force abuses, including forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings are commonplace.

Perhaps even more alarming is Egypt’s liberal application of the death penalty to enforce the government’s writ and intimidate its opponents. In 2020, the country ranked third worldwide in the number of executions it carried out, behind only China and Iran. International human rights groups reported many of the people executed were government opponents convicted of violent crimes in politically tainted procedures—often mass trials that did not meet international standards for due process. Some of those receiving death sentences were minors under Egyptian law, although none are known to have been executed.

The latest such case, which has been harshly criticized internationally, involves death sentences handed down to 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for their roles in the 2013 sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, which resulted in the killings of hundreds of protesters by security forces. The sentences were upheld in June by Egypt’s highest court and await approval by Sisi.

Security interests have always outweighed any concern about the authoritarian nature of Egypt’s government and its massive human rights abuses.

And the situation is getting worse. Cairo’s campaign of repression extends to cyberspace as well. In 2020, five women colloquially known as the “TikTok girls” were sentenced to prison terms of two years apiece, plus substantial fines, for violating Egyptian “indecency” laws due to their robust efforts to establish themselves as social media stars.

After these verdicts were overturned in court several months ago, the Egyptian government successfully pressed new charges of “human trafficking” against two of the most prominent of them; in June, Haneen Hossam was sentenced to 10 years in absentia, and Mawada al-Adham, who was present in court, received a six-year sentence. The unfortunate fate of the two women is only a small part of a comprehensive effort by Cairo to monitor, harass, and silence its netizens for both cultural and political ends.

The regime has also gone to considerable trouble to intimidate activists overseas. Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen and Egyptian human rights activist, was held in an Egyptian prison for almost two years due to his peaceful political advocacy, where he was subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment. Released in 2015 as a result of Obama administration pressure, he returned to the United States and founded the Washington-based Freedom Initiative, an advocacy group. But the Egyptian government continued to harass his relatives in the country, provoked in particular by Soltan’s lawsuit against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi for Soltan’s torture in detention.

During his visit to Washington in July, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel presented administration officials with a document allegedly signed by a U.S. Embassy official that promised Soltan would serve out the rest of his life sentence (which has not been vacated) in the United States.

Although the document is legally unenforceable even if authentic, Kamel’s gambit served two important purposes: first, as a warning that Soltan and others like him remain in the regime’s sights, and second, that the Biden administration shouldn’t press too hard on human rights cases because Cairo is willing to play hardball. That would most likely take the form of harsher crackdowns on human rights activists and organizations within Egypt as well as new pressure on the relatives of critics living in the United States.

Since 2013, Egypt has experienced nothing short of a slide toward totalitarianism, notable among authoritarian states but unique among close U.S. allies. Both former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump downplayed these developments, with Trump showering praise instead of censure on the Egyptian leader.

Biden, who famously pledged “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” now has the opportunity to set a new course. His State Department currently faces a decision on whether to release $300 million in military aid that is subject to human rights conditions. Both Obama and Trump issued national security waivers when faced with the same choice, thus giving up a key point of leverage. If Biden does the same, it will let Egypt and other autocrats in the region know they have nothing to fear from Washington’s renewed talk of human rights.

However, the administration appears conflicted. Instead of offering hard truths on human rights, it approved $200 million in arms sales to Egypt in February, claiming the sale “serves U.S. and global interests.” In April, the administration moved to quash Soltan’s lawsuit against Beblawi on the grounds that the former prime minister—who had been living in the United States as Egypt’s representative to the International Monetary Fund—enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The case remains active, awaiting a judge’s ruling on the immunity issue.

Biden seems to be softening on Sisi, praising him for his recent role in ending the Gaza violence. As an initial step, the administration is offering a “constructive dialogue” with Cairo on human rights issues. But the United States has been down this road before: Similar dialogues under Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush raised human rights issues, with no visible effect on Egypt’s deepening repression.

This dialogue could succeed where others have failed—but only if Washington changes the rules of the game.

The State Department should refuse to issue a national security waiver for the $300 million in military assistance. That will show Washington is serious and give Cairo strong motivation to talk in good faith.

First, the State Department should refuse to issue a national security waiver for the $300 million in military assistance. That will show Washington is serious and give Cairo strong motivation to talk in good faith. The administration should also pledge not to issue such waivers as a matter of routine in the future but only as an acknowledgment of improved performance en route to comprehensive change.

Second, U.S. officials should make clear everything is on the table in the constructive dialogue, not just what Washington and the Egyptian side feel comfortable discussing. What the United States must do instead is listen carefully to the authentic and thoughtful voices of Egypt’s own activists and align U.S. demands on human rights with what those voices recommend.

Such voices exist. In May, five respected, independent Egyptian human rights groups announced a package of “urgent measures” the regime should be pressed to take to stop the country’s accelerating repression. These include the release of political prisoners, a halt to indefinite detentions before trial, and an end to the state of emergency governing the country since 2017, which has provided cover for some of Egypt’s most egregious human rights abuses.

These measures should be baseline demands in any U.S. talks with the Egyptian government. Not only would implementation of these policies mark a significant improvement in the human rights picture, but they would also help create a climate where further progress is possible. Biden himself can reinforce the message by refusing to meet with Sisi at the United Nations General Assembly this fall, withholding a sign of approval the Egyptian leader craves.

The U.S. interest in regional stability does not require Washington to ignore human rights; it demands that the White House take the issue seriously enough to press for real improvements. Egypt’s record of repression and Cairo’s centrality to U.S. policy in the Middle East makes it an ideal place to begin.

Charles Dunne is a nonresident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and a former U.S. diplomat who served in Cairo. After leaving the government, he was the Middle East director at Freedom House and now teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Twitter: @CharlesWDunne

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