With Joe Biden, Cairo's relations with Washington are undergoing an uncomfortable reboot.
CAIRO — In the weeks leading up to and through Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential elections in November, officials in Egypt's Foreign Ministry scrambled to prepare for one of the most consequential leadership changes in decades for Cairo's most important ally.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi struck a particularly close relationship with President Donald Trump over his four-year term, with the Trump administration offering vocal support for Sisi despite widespread documentation of human rights abuses and limited Egyptian foreign policy influence. Biden, on the other hand, has been critical of the cozy relationship and has vowed to end "blank checks' for Trump's "favorite dictator."
According to several current and former officials who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, as Trump's election defeat became clear, officials at the Foreign Ministry prepared a series of memos outlining a number of proposals intended to maintain Cairo's relationship with Washington under a Biden administration and reassert Egypt's standing as a key ally, as its historical influence and relevance in the region have steadily waned over the preceding decade.
The memos, which were circulated to the foreign minister and to the president, suggest several domestic policy changes intended to ease criticism of Cairo's crackdown on political opposition and civil liberties. The memos also propose a number of foreign policy measures concerning Israel-Palestine, Libya and elsewhere, aimed at reestablishing Egypt's value as a regional partner to the United States.
Along with the Egyptian government's hiring of a powerful new lobbying firm in Washington to promote U.S. relations with Cairo, the moves paint a picture of a government deeply concerned about its increasingly precarious relationship with the United States as the Democrats take control of Congress and the White House, and as the geopolitical landscape in the region undergoes tectonic shifts.
"Senior people within the Sisi regime know they are not in good standing with the U.S. They made mistakes over the last four years. They made themselves a much more partisan issue," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank. "The mere fact that these discussions are happening is a reflection that they are aware of just how badly out of step they are with this administration and that they might need to mend fences this time around."
A whole new scenario
After Biden was declared the winner, Sisi promptly issued a statement congratulating him, saying he was "looking forward to working and cooperating with the new president-elect to boost the strategic bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States." The two leaders have yet to speak directly, however, and Egypt was not among the first 31 calls that new U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made to his counterparts abroad.
"With Trump, Sisi had a friend in the White House who did special favors for him and prevented any significant repercussions for Egypt's human rights abuses," says Michele Dunne, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official who follows Egypt. "With Biden, Sisi no longer has that, which changes the whole dynamic."
According to a number of current and former officials, among the Foreign Ministry's recommendations is that Egyptian authorities ease up on the arrest of dissidents and release some opposition figures in a systematic way in order to curry favor with the Biden administration.
"The new U.S. administration needs to know that Egypt is a serious and relevant partner," an informed Egyptian official tells Mada Masr. "On the home front, we are bluntly saying that there has to be a way to address the human rights situation in a substantial way."
Any potential releases are unlikely, however, to include high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood or their Islamist allies, who have long been subject to harsher repressive measures since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and are viewed by authorities as being in a separate threat category altogether.
"Releasing a few people once in a while will not suffice to convince the Biden administration that we are really trying. We need to have a strategy," the official says. "But obviously this strategy will exclude the Islamists."
Three Egyptian diplomats tell Mada Masr that Cairo needs to demonstrate to the Biden administration that the political situation in Egypt is improving by, for example, allowing political parties and opposition figures to have more of a voice in the media.
The majority of Egypt's newspapers and television channels are owned by the General Intelligence Service (GIS), which has tightly controlled the media narrative over the last several years, allowing few, if any, critical voices to be heard. A 2017 Mada Masr investigation found that the GIS owns a governing stake in Eagle Capital, a private equity firm that owns the Egyptian Media Group, the biggest media conglomerate in Egypt.
However, the officials note that proposals by the Foreign Ministry only carry so much weight. It is the country's powerful security and intelligence agencies that often have final say on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues. And thus far, there has been no definitive agreement on a strategy to increase civil liberties or release political prisoners held in pretrial detention, sources say.
"The question is not whether or not we can engage the Biden administration, because we do have the tools. The question is whether the executive authority wants to do so and whether it is willing to reroute on some issues, like human rights. This is not something that the Foreign Ministry decides," the official says. "The Foreign Ministry sent its ideas, but there are other views that have been put out by several other bodies, including the GIS and others. At the end of the day these ideas or proposals are not necessarily all synchronized."
This lack of synchronicity was glaringly apparent in November, when Egyptian authorities arrested three staff members at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the country's most prominent human rights organizations.
Multiple security and government officials previously told Mada Masr that a single security official was behind the decision to arrest the three staffers and that he believed that keeping them locked up for as long as possible would quash any hopes among local civil society of capitalizing on Biden's election.
Cairo needs to show Biden administration that the political situation in Egypt is improving.
But the EIPR detentions appear to have had the opposite effect, thrusting Egypt's human rights record into the global spotlight and triggering an 18-day saga of international condemnation and diplomatic intervention that ended with the detained staff walking free.
After the first two staffers were detained, the Foreign Ministry — which was completely taken aback by the arrests — recommended a halt to the detentions and advised against the arrest of the organization's executive director, according to several official sources. Nevertheless, the security official overseeing the crackdown ignored their pleas. In the meantime, as international condemnation grew, Egyptian embassies, particularly those in Paris and Washington, sent cables to the president's office, the Foreign Ministry and security agencies, urging them to find a resolution.
The arrests prompted 56 U.S. congressional Democrats to sign on to a letter addressed to Sisi condemning the crackdown. Blinken also criticized the arrests in a tweet. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry received a letter signed by 19 ambassadors in Egypt — including the U.S. ambassador, who had not taken part in a visit to the headquarters of the EIPR by over a dozen European diplomats that allegedly prompted the crackdown — urging the Egyptian government to act promptly to resolve the crisis.
Biden entered office having to contend with a number of significant domestic challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the United States with particular severity, bitter political polarization, and the aftermath of some of the largest protests against racism and police abuse in a generation. It was therefore assumed that the human rights situation in Egypt would be a relatively low priority at the start of Biden's term.
But the EIPR case may have altered that calculus.
"Egypt was not a priority for the U.S., not when it came to the situation of human rights," an Egyptian government source tells Mada Masr. "However, by starting the EIPR issue, Egypt sort of chose to put its human rights situation higher up on Biden's to-do list for 2021."
A lobbying firm Egypt hired to promote its interests in Washington also cautioned at the time that if the EIPR crisis continued, Egypt's image in Washington would be tarnished just as the presidential transition was underway.
Less than a week before the first EIPR arrest, on Nov. 9, the Egyptian embassy in Washington closed a deal with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a lobbying group and law firm, to provide "government relations services and strategic consultation in matters before the U.S. government" pertinent to Egypt for $65,000 per month.
Although Egypt had been in talks with the firm for months, the contract was signed by Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Motaz Zahran — who had arrived in Washington in November — just two days after Biden became the president-elect.
Egypt chose to put its human rights situation higher up on Biden's to-do list for 2021.
The bipartisan lobbying team is led by Nadeam Elshami, a Democrat who was chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Ed Royce, a Republican who was the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mada Masr submitted interview requests with Elshami, Royce and several other lobbyists at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck handling the Egypt account but did not receive any response.
"The lobbying firm will not just be working on Congress but also on the think tanks and groups that have a particular interest in the situation in Egypt, like the Egypt Working Group," a former official tells Mada Masr, referring to the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts formed in 2010 to, as they describe it, "seek more constructive U.S. policies towards Egypt."
In June, the group sent a letter to Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on him to press the Egyptian president "to cease his escalating crackdown on peaceful opponents."
One of the first moves the new lobbying firm made after Biden's inauguration was to work to gain support in Congress for Egypt in the stalled negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, according to Foreign Lobby, a news outlet that tracks foreign political lobbying in Washington.
On Jan. 28, Royce sent an email to lawmakers calling their attention to possible environmental risks posed by the dam and encouraging them to send their staffers to a virtual meeting on the issue held by the Egyptian embassy in Washington on Feb. 1.
"As you may know, the negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have stalled. Without an enforceable agreement, the operations of the dam will have significant environmental ramifications, for both the populations of Egypt and Sudan as well as for the Nile's regional ecosystems," Royce wrote.
According to a number of Egyptian officials, Cairo also hopes to use the lobbying firm to push back against efforts by U.S.-based human rights groups that are pressuring Washington to hold Egypt accountable for human rights abuses.
"Egyptian-American groups opposed to the regime are trying to lobby Congressmen with negative views on Egypt," a second former Egyptian official tells Mada Masr. "While trying to win Biden over, we should be working on a parallel track to win over some influential senators like Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Patrick Leahy."
Trump and al Sisi in 2017 — Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire
Both Graham, the outgoing chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Leahy, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, have vocally criticized Sisi's government over a number of issues, including human rights abuses and the controversial NGO law.
Leahy is also the principal sponsor of legislation known as the Leahy Laws, which withholds foreign U.S. military aid unless the secretary of state certifies the country is taking various steps to support democracy and human rights. The bulk of U.S. funding to Egypt comes in the form of an annual $1.3 billion military assistance package.
Even though the State Department's own assessments of Egypt have acknowledged widespread abuses — such as unlawful killings, torture, forced disappearance and arbitrary detention — successive Democratic and Republican secretaries of state have regularly issued national security waivers over the years to override these concerns and continue the funding.
But in December, Congress for the first time made the disbursement of military aid to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners without providing the State Department the option to waive the conditions in the interests of national security.
The condition, which comes as part of Washington's 2021 budget allocation legislature, concerns $75 million in military aid out of the total $1.3 billion. The legislation marked the first time U.S. military aid to Egypt has been conditioned on human rights benchmarks without a national security waiver, according to Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Washington DC-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
"This sends an important message to the Egyptian government that Congress is deeply concerned with its continued unjust detention of human rights defenders," Binder previously told Mada Masr.
Cairo now has even more cause for concern over increased attention being directed toward Egypt's record on human rights within the Democratic-controlled Congress. On Jan. 25, Democratic members of Congress Don Beyer of Virginia and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey announced the formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The caucus will work to leverage Washington's relationship with Cairo, including its vast military aid package, in order to pressure Egypt to improve its human rights record, Beyer tells Mada Masr.
Congress is deeply concerned with its continued unjust detention of human rights defenders.
The formation of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus sparked sharp criticism by Egyptian parliamentarians. Tarek Radwan, the head of the Human Rights Committee in Parliament, singled out Malinowski in particular in a statement on Feb. 6.
"Malinowski wants to use the Egypt Human Rights Caucus to allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to hold hearing sessions and conferences inside the U.S. Congress on the human rights situation in Egypt," Radwan said. "Malinowski should know that this is a dangerous game because when you open the door of the Congress for a group with an Islamist Jihadist and violent ideology you will cause harm to America's national security itself."
Last month, Malinowski was elected to be vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an influential post with regard to relations with Egypt. Meanwhile, Beyer has long been critical of human rights abuses in Egypt, particularly during his vocal advocacy for his constituent, Aya Hegazy, the dual Egyptian-American citizen who was imprisoned in Cairo for three years before her release in 2017 after Trump and his aides intervened in the case.
The Beblawi case
While U.S. military aid is a cornerstone of Cairo's relationship with Washington, Egypt has been diversifying its sources of arms procurement over the past several years, striking massive weapons deals with countries like France, Germany and Italy, as well as Russia and China, to become the third-largest arms importer in the world. Still, the U.S. remains a key ally, and the "human rights headache," as some Egyptian officials describe it, is a source of major concern for the Egyptian government, which is continuing efforts to alter the perception of Cairo's human rights record absent any real reform.
During a recent video conference meeting with a group of Egyptian-Americans on the eve of Biden's inauguration, Egyptian ambassador Zahran urged the group to "exert maximum effort" to convince their congressional representatives that the human rights situation in Egypt had improved under Sisi. He pointed specifically to the Coptic Christian minority and women's rights, stressing that socioeconomic issues are a bigger priority for the majority of Egyptians, according to an Egyptian-American who was on the call. Zahran called on the group to tell their representatives that tolerating Islamists could unleash a new wave of "terror" in Egypt and that it could negatively influence the public perception in Egypt of the Biden administration.
Another potential setback Cairo is facing is an ongoing lawsuit filed in June by dual Egyptian-American national Mohamed Soltan in a federal district court in Washington DC, accusing former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi of targeting him for attempted extrajudicial killing and for the "direction of and oversight" of acts of torture against him in 2013.
Beblawi, who served as Egypt's prime minister from 2013 to 2014, lived in DC, where he worked as an executive director of the International Monetary Fund when the lawsuit was filed last year. After the suit was filed, he repeatedly demanded that the Egyptian embassy act to block the case, according to sources at the Egyptian embassy in Washington. Beblawi was replaced in his IMF post in October and has left Washington.
Both the Trump administration and the Egyptian government intervened to try to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Beblawi is immune from suit, given his position as a diplomat and an executive director at the IMF. The U.S. court has yet to rule on whether the high-profile lawsuit will move forward.
Although it is unclear still how the Biden administration will approach the case, Biden himself in July denounced the arrest of Soltan's relatives by Egyptian authorities in apparent retaliation for his filing of the suit. On Jan. 22, two days after Biden took office, the Department of Justice requested the court hold off on its request for a statement of interest from the government to take a formal position on the immunity issue until Feb. 26, in order for new State Department officials to familiarize themselves with the case.
The issue is not Egypt's relevance, but rather its usefulness.
Egyptian officials appear confident the lawsuit will not have a significant impact on the bilateral relationship. "We will always manage these types of cases," says the informed official. "It was not very difficult to tell the outgoing U.S. administration that Hazem al-Beblawi is in his mid-80s and in very poor health and that they should find a fast exit for him. I don't think that any U.S. administration will want to lose Egypt over a particular case here or there."
In addition to tackling the increased scrutiny of Egypt's human rights record under a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress, the series of memos regarding U.S.-Egypt relations also addressed Egypt's foreign policies in the region and how Cairo could position itself as an important strategic ally.
At the top of the agenda was reasserting Cairo's role in any future negotiations on Israel-Palestine. Egypt has historically been the main interlocutor with Israel over the past 40 years, since it became the first Arab country to establish formal diplomatic ties by signing the 1979 Camp David Accords, a treaty that has anchored Cairo's relationship with Washington. But over the last decade, Egypt's influence in the region has waned, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia emerging as top regional power brokers.
The UAE's decision to normalize relations with Israel in August, and its role in pushing Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to follow suit — with the blessing of Saudi Arabia — has further marginalized Cairo's influence in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken has vocally supported the normalization deals and says he will work to further them.
"On the foreign affairs front, we need to do a lot of repositioning. We have to accelerate our engagement with managing the Palestinian situation vis-a-vis Israel," says the informed Egyptian official. "We can't be sitting and watching while the UAE is offering itself as the leading Arab mediator with Israel. We need to be making proposals on how to manage a regional order that accommodates Israel somehow but at the same time makes Israel responsible to address some key Palestinian issues."
For the past several weeks, Egypt has been negotiating an official visit to Cairo by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the so-called peace process. Sisi has reportedly conditioned the visit on Netanyahu making a positive statement on the Palestinian issue, such as recommitting to the two-state solution, according to Axios, as a way to reinvigorate Egypt's role and send a positive message to the White House.
"Egypt's geographic location and history means it will always have a role on some issues, particularly concerning neighboring countries," Dunne says. "The issue is not Egypt's relevance, but rather its usefulness — does it make a positive and meaningful contribution to resolving regional issues or not? Egypt's role regarding Palestinian reconciliation has not been, and perhaps cannot be, decisive; and the role Egypt has played in Libya and Sudan seems more negative than positive. Regarding Israel, it now has many new partners in the region."
Libya is another area where Foreign Ministry officials believe Egypt can work to better align itself with the Biden administration. Egypt, along with the UAE, Jordan and Russia, backed Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar's ill-fated military campaign to take the capital that began in 2019 and prompted the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord to seek military support and intervention from Turkey.
"We can work with the U.S. to manage the situation in Libya, where we have been quite far from the militia alliances with Turkey. This makes us a possible strong U.S. ally in Libya, along with France, that is already opposed to the Turkish presence in Libya," the informed official says, even while acknowledging that Egypt has increasingly and quietly been cooperating with Turkey on the ground in western Libya.
Egypt sent a high-ranking delegation to western Libya at the close of December in an attempt to shore up Egypt's ability to make itself a primary player in the settlement of the Libyan conflict, an Egyptian official previously told Mada Masr. But many of those power brokers in the west were dealt a setback on Friday with the surprise election of Abdul Hamid Dbaiba, a businessman from the powerful western city of Misrata whose Libyan Investment and Development Corporation is one of the largest construction firms in Libya that worked closely with Turkish business partners during the rule of ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi.
Three Egyptian diplomats tell Mada Masr separately that along with Palestine and Libya, Egypt needs to position itself as a regional ally to the United States in other areas as well, including Iraq and Syria. The diplomats and other officials also say Cairo should maintain a softer stance towards Iran than Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as the Biden administration looks to restore the nuclear deal with Tehran.
"Egypt's profile has diminished and there is no reason to think it has a way to reassert itself in the near term. It's not that Egypt is totally unimportant but they are not an essential player," says the Century Foundation's Michael Wahid Hanna.
"At the level of rhetoric, things are going to change and the atmospherics of the U.S. relationship are going to change. It's not possible that Sisi's coming to Washington for example," he adds. "That's kind of the minimum, but symbolism matters and it's real change. That is reflecting on how Egypt is acting — they're scrambling."