President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to put democracy back on the agenda after four years of President Trump’s unapologetic coddling of dictators. Mr. Biden has promised to host a gathering of the world’s democracies to demonstrate his commitment to democratic values both abroad and at home. But will Mr. Biden go beyond rhetoric and gestures to making concrete policy?
If he is serious, there is an obvious place to begin: Egypt.
Mr. Biden will assume office at a time of multiple crises. A country where the regime appears stable, the relationship is well established, and there are no urgent security problems is unlikely to be high on his list of priorities. Still, there is good reason to start the push for democracy with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country.
Egypt appears intent on fully exploiting the remaining weeks of Mr. Trump’s unseemly embrace of deepening autocracy. Secure in the knowledge that it can act with impunity, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has opened an assault on the few remaining structures of independent civil society in Egypt.
That assault began with the arrests last month of a leader and two staff members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group that had hosted senior European diplomats for a briefing just days earlier. The action seems intended to deter other activists and cripple E.I.P.R. The arrests are a continuation of a zero-tolerance approach to dissent that has produced thousands of political prisoners. The three detainees were released on bail, but the legal efforts against them continue.
In these latest actions, the Egyptian government has made itself a test case for America’s approach to both the Middle East and what the president-elect has described as “the rising authoritarianism we see in the world.”
International condemnation of Mr. el-Sisi’s latest crackdown has been broad and swift, including public comments from the European Union, the office of the United Nations secretary general, France, Germany, Canada — and even Mr. Trump’s State Department. Mr. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, shared his concern over the arrests, noting, “Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”
Together, this suggests that there is eagerness for a new approach from the United States to Egypt — and to human rights abusers around the world. Mr. Biden needs to show what a new approach would actually look like.
If he doesn’t, Egypt will continue to believe it will suffer few penalties for its repression. Its rulers remain convinced of the country’s centrality to the Middle East and American policy in the region. More than anything, it seems, Egypt expects that Washington’s fear of potential instability and Cairo’s close relationships with American partners like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel make a change in American policy unlikely.
Such inaction would be a mistake. The underlying assumptions that have formed the basis of the American-Egyptian partnership no longer apply, and the problems in the relationship can no longer be ignored.
That partnership began in 1979, following Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. In the context of the Cold War, this was a major diplomatic achievement for the United States. Egypt became an anchor of American policy in the Middle East and was key in advancing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and combating terrorism.
Today, though, Egypt is no longer a major driver of events nor a leader among the Arab states. Egyptian security ties with Israel have deepened in recent years and are no longer dependent on American support. Egyptian counterterrorism efforts are a matter of Egyptian national security and are in no sense a favor to the United States. Military cooperation remains limited and Egypt resists detailing how American weapons are being used.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the relationship is marked by so much dysfunction and suspicion that many Egyptian leaders continue to push unfounded conspiracy theories that the Egyptian uprising of 2011 as part of the Arab Spring was the product of American machinations.
While the United States may preserve its theoretical access to Egyptian leaders by restraining its criticism of appalling human rights violations, there is no evidence that access has allowed Washington to try to brake Egypt’s deepening authoritarianism and increasing repression. Instead it has only furthered perceptions of American complicity.
Those diminished ties represent an opportunity. Taking a hard line on Egypt would not, in fact, be costly to American security or strategy in the Middle East. The incoming Biden administration should pause and clearly outline the consequences of continued lawlessness.
So what can Mr. Biden and his team do? Egypt has already received $1 billion in foreign military financing this year, but $300 million more is yet to be released. Those funds, which are typically disbursed before the end of the fiscal year in August or September, are supposed to be conditioned on human rights.
In recent years, that aid has been distributed despite the Egyptian government’s dismal record via a national security waiver. The Biden administration should make clear that these funds will not be sent without immediate and significant improvements on human rights.
Appropriations for 2021 are being negotiated in Congress, which appears unlikely to alter current aid arrangements. Instead, the Biden administration will have to indicate that unless the Sisi government changes its behavior, it will seek to downgrade the partnership, including military assistance. If Egypt is intent on imprisoning its best and brightest it should not be done with Washington’s acquiescence.
It’s basically unheard-of for Washington to undertake a major reassessment of a longtime partnership like the one with Egypt. Doing so would send a powerful signal not just in the Middle East but around the world. It would also represent a necessary first step in resetting the terms of America’s relationships in a region that still represents a disproportionate focus of American policy.
By beginning with Egypt, the United States will also convey the seriousness of its commitment to push back against resurgent authoritarianism more broadly.
Michael Wahid Hanna (@mwhanna1) is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a nonresident senior fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security.
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