Critics have it right: Biden didn’t get tough on Egypt
It already seems a long time ago that Joe Biden arrived in the White House promising to defend democracy and protect human rights worldwide. Now, less than a month after having thrown Afghanistan’s struggling democracy to the wolves, the president is offering only the merest pretense of preserving human rights in Egypt.
The Biden administration has reportedly decided to supply the government of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi with more than half of the $300 million in American military aid that had previously been suspended by Congress because of the Egyptian government’s appalling human rights record. U.S. law requires the secretary of state to certify that Cairo has taken “sustained and effective steps” to clean up its act before the money can be released. But Antony Blinken will exercise his prerogative to exempt $170 million from such conditions.
The latest State Department report on human rights in Egypt calls out Cairo on the full panoply of abuses, from extrajudicial killings and detention of political opponents to violence against the LGBTQ community and the use of forced child labor. Even so, officials briefing Washington journalists in private are spinning the Blinken waiver as an improvement over the policy of previous administrations, which routinely released the entire $300 million. In this narrative, Biden is the first American president to punish el-Sissi, to the tune of $130 million, for failing to improve his rights record.
But at best, Biden is slapping el-Sissi with a wet noodle. The amount being withheld is just 10% of the $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt is annually allocated by the U.S. And it represents an infinitesimal proportion of international assistance Cairo receives, much of it from Gulf Arab countries.
Unimpressed, human rights groups have condemned the administration’s decision as a betrayal of its “stated commitment to human rights and to the rule of law.” In a statement on Tuesday, 19 organizations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House — said the waiver “gives license to the Egyptian government to continue perpetrating egregious human rights violations without fear of repercussions.”
There’s been criticism, too, from within Biden’s own party. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., noting that Egypt’s human rights record has worsened over the past two years, characterized the administration decision as “a half-hearted implementation of the statute,” and warned that other dictators would take notice.
While the partial withholding of aid will please nobody, it will not too greatly inconvenience el-Sissi, who can shrug off the deficit. Overall, U.S. support for Egypt — military and economic aid combined — has remained fairly constant for decades, rarely topping $2 billion a year. But since the general seized power in a 2013 coup, this has been dwarfed by assistance from Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The growth of the Egyptian economy has made American nonmilitary aid less critical for Cairo.
Same again for U.S. military assistance, which is meant for the procurement of American defense supplies. Even as Egypt under el-Sissi has climbed the ranks of the world’s major importers of arms — it now ranks third, behind Saudi Arabia and India — it has dramatically reduced its dependence on U.S. sources. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institutes, which maintains a military expenditure database for most countries, Egypt’s principal arms suppliers since 2016 have been Russia and France, accounting for 41% and 28% of imports, respectively; the U.S.’s share was just 8.7%.
To stand a chance of influencing Cairo’s attitude toward human rights, the Biden administration would, at the minimum, have had to withhold a much larger proportion of military aid. Biden himself might have leaned on el-Sissi, whether in public pronouncements or private advice. That would have been consistent with his pre-election pledge of “no more blank checks” for the Egyptian leader.
But Biden signaled a change of heart shortly after taking office. In February, his administration approved the sale of missiles worth $200 million to the Egyptian navy, despite el-Sissi’s continued repression of dissent.
Biden’s attitude toward the general softened further in the summer, when Egypt helped to broker the end of the latest Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. And the Egyptian leader earned even more brownie points in Washington this week, when he hosted Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in Sharm el-Sheikh, the first public meeting between leaders of the two countries in about a decade.
With his stock rising in the Biden administration, el-Sissi can surely stomach the occasional wet noodle.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Bobby Ghosh writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.