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Egypt's Sisi may be readying for Biden's stance on human rights

Egypt's Sisi may be readying for Biden's stance on human rights
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi appears to be reacting to the pending arrival of a Democratic president in the White House come January. Sisi has intensified his crackdown on human rights groups in the country, possibly with the intent to later bargain with President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenWoman accused of trying to sell Pelosi laptop to Russians arrested Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Trump moves to lift coronavirus travel restrictions on Europe, Brazil MORE, and he apparently is willing to bear the consequences

Egyptian security forces recently arrested members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), accusing them of treason, terrorism, belonging to an unlicensed entity, and distorting the nation’s image. In response to worldwide criticisms, Ambassador Ahmed Hafiz, spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, stated his government’s rejection of any intervention in its domestic affairs.  

Conventional wisdom in some Washington circles suggests this could be a sign of a power struggle with the Egyptian government, but this is unlikely the case. Rightly, there are disagreements among the regime, the military brass and the security apparatus on their share of the economy, influence over local politics and control of the media, but they all are united in the belief that political activism and human rights advocacy is a Western conspiracy to sow domestic instability and threaten the existence of the regime itself.

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Indeed, the recent arrests are not random raids by lower-ranking security officers who are not savvy in foreign policy. Rather, the Egyptian government may be positioning itself to weather what they see as a coming storm of criticism on human rights and freedom of expression from President-elect Joe Biden. To better prepare itself for his administration, Cairo has hired two high-profile lobbying firms to improve the country’s image in D.C. policy circles. 

The Sisi regime may be preparing to use human rights advocates as a bargaining chip with the incoming U.S. administration. Biden’s election represents that the international community is coming back to power to finish what they could not accomplish during the Obama administration and will exert influence to release thousands of detained activists and prisoners. The Egyptian government would prefer to have a conversation about releasing EIPR “non-Islamist” prisoners than to discuss what they deem as “more threatening” Islamist and non-Islamist detainees. Cairo understands it could maximize its benefits by releasing the EIPR activists one by one.

In the past few weeks, Cairo likely became wary of the collective sigh of relief that Egyptian activists, at home and abroad, expressed regarding the Biden administration. Their positive feeling is a result of support they have received from sympathizers in various Western capitals, including Washington and European countries. Egyptian officials associate human rights advocacy in the country with defending jailed Muslim Brotherhood members, whom they deem terrorists. In the eyes of the regime, the group has been the leading opponent domestically for 50 years. 

Moreover, the Sisi regime sees an opportunity to boost its faded popularity among the citizenry. Egyptians are naturally wary of foreign powers, and the regime may put forth propaganda about these raids that claims foreign powers indeed are intervening in internal affairs and that President Sisi is standing up for Egypt’s sovereignty.     

For its part, the Biden administration will have to push to establish a human rights dialogue with Egypt, one in which American and Egyptian officials meet regularly and exchange honest views. This is unlikely to satisfy members of Congress, but it can be a first step in the right direction.  

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The Biden administration also should work with Congress on proposals to tie some portion of the annual U.S. aid to Egypt to the resolution of cases involving Americans who are unjustly detained by the Sisi regime. This will serve two purposes: First, it will ensure that Congress is focused on the realistic and achievable goal of releasing detained Americans without inserting any impractical lofty language and, second, it will send a message to the Egyptian government that the Biden administration is different and “business as usual” is over. 

A third route — which should be used only if the Biden team decides that polite, private and diplomatic overtures to Cairo have not succeeded and are not likely to — is the application of the Global Magnitsky Act to Egypt. This law provides the U.S. government the flexibility to specify human rights violations and target corrupt officials.

Lastly, the Biden administration should aim to sanction the murderers of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni. The administration also can target security officials who have participated or enabled the detention of American citizens in Egypt, and work with U.S. allies in Canada and Britain to ensure that they take similar steps. A multilateral approach will be far more effective than any steps Biden’s administration could take alone.  

Haisam Hassanein, a former Glazer Fellow with The Washington Institute, is a Middle East analyst who focuses on commercial diplomacy and related issues. Follow him on Twitter @HaisamHassanei1.