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It's time for Biden, with Sisi. to get tough

In Egypt, the US has long taken the path of least resistance. Since Washington is unwilling to take serious steps to counter human rights violations by the Egyptian government from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present day, or its own complicity in providing military and economic aid to Cairo, Washington has often faced pro forma criticism Leave Egypt's record while addressing the problem in the interests of maintaining an uncertain politico-military status quo in the region. US President Joe Biden promised to change this course, but has so far done the opposite.

Cairo's role in brokering peace agreements in the Middle East, its counter-terrorism cooperation, and its preferential treatment of U.S. warships and military aircraft traversing the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always had every concern about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government and its massive Human rights violations predominated. Egypt's role in "regional stability" was all that mattered. As a former US diplomat who served in Cairo, I have had to write, or a version of, this topic of conversation for government officials and members of Congress hundreds of times.

In Egypt, the US has long taken the path of least resistance. Since Washington is unwilling to take serious steps to counter human rights violations by the Egyptian government from the Hosni Mubarak era to the present day, or its own complicity in providing military and economic aid to Cairo, Washington has often faced pro forma criticism Leave Egypt's record while addressing the problem in the interests of maintaining an uncertain politico-military status quo in the region. US President Joe Biden promised to change this course, but has so far done the opposite.

Cairo's role in brokering peace agreements in the Middle East, its counter-terrorism cooperation, and its preferential treatment of U.S. warships and military aircraft traversing the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace have always had every concern about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government and its massive Human rights violations predominated. Egypt's role in "regional stability" was all that mattered. As a former US diplomat who served in Cairo, I have had to write, or a version of, this topic of conversation for government officials and members of Congress hundreds of times.

The problem is that Egypt's human rights abuses, compounded by poor governance and economic mismanagement, have accelerated internal instability and terrorism. As the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State on the Sinai Peninsula demonstrated, this can have far-reaching regional implications. Indeed, the nonprofit Human Rights First noted that "(Abdel Fattah al-Sisis) brutal crackdown on dissent is fueling the growth of IS as the group is increasingly recruiting supporters in Egyptian prisons." seriously, he now has the power to put pressure on Egypt by denying a $ 300 million security aid package.

After the 2013 coup, which led the then Egyptian Defense Minister Sisi to the presidency in 2014, his regime imprisoned around 60,000 people on political charges. Thousands of people have been detained indefinitely in abusive conditions, tortured, lacked medical care and often without access to due process. Since then, the government has cracked down on civil and political freedoms and abuse of security forces, including enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings are commonplace.

Perhaps even more alarming is Egypt's liberal use of the death penalty to enforce government orders and intimidate their opponents. In 2020, the country ranked third in the world for the number of executions it carried out, behind China and Iran. International human rights groups reported that many of the people executed were anti-government officials convicted of violent crimes in politically contaminated trials – often mass trials that failed to meet international due process standards. Some of those sentenced to death were minors under Egyptian law, although none are known to have been executed.

The most recent such case, which has received harsh international criticism, concerns the death sentences of 12 high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted of their role in the 2013 sit-down strike in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, in which hundreds of people were killed by protesters Security guards. The verdicts were upheld by the Egyptian highest court in June, pending approval from Sisi.

And the situation is getting worse. Cairo's repression campaign also extends to cyberspace. In 2020, five women, known colloquially as "TikTok girls", were each sentenced to two years in prison plus substantial fines for violating Egyptian "indecency laws" in order to establish themselves as social media stars.

After these judgments were overturned in court a few months ago, the Egyptian government successfully brought new "human trafficking" charges against two of the most prominent of them; in June, Haneen Hossam was sentenced to ten years' absence and Mawada al-Adham, who was present in court, was given a six-year prison term. The unfortunate fate of the two women is only a small part of Cairo's extensive efforts to monitor, harass and silence its internet users for both cultural and political reasons.

The regime has also made significant efforts to intimidate activists abroad. Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen and Egyptian human rights activist, was held in an Egyptian prison for almost two years for his peaceful political engagement, where he was subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment. Released in 2015 under pressure from the Obama administration, he returned to the United States and founded the Washington-based Freedom Initiative, an advocacy group. However, the Egyptian government continued to harass his relatives in the country, particularly provoked by Soltan's lawsuit against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi for Soltan's torture while in custody.

During his visit to Washington in July, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel presented government officials with a document allegedly signed by a U.S. embassy official promising Soltan the remainder of his life imprisonment (which was not vacated) in the United States to serve.

While the document is legally unenforceable, even if it is authentic, Kamel's move served two important purposes: first, as a warning that Soltan and others like him are being targeted by the regime, and second, that the Biden government is not protecting human rights too much should be pushing cases as Cairo ready to play hard. This would most likely come in the form of tougher crackdowns on human rights activists and organizations in Egypt, as well as renewed pressure on the relatives of critics living in the US.

Since 2013, Egypt has seen a downright slide towards totalitarianism, remarkable among authoritarian states but unique among close US allies. The two former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump downplayed these developments, with Trump showering the Egyptian leader with praise rather than blame.

Biden, who is known to have promised “no more blank checks for Trump's' favorite dictator” ”, now has the opportunity to set a new course. His State Department is currently facing a decision on whether to release US $ 300 million in military aid that is tied to human rights. In the face of the same decision, both Obama and Trump issued national security waivers, giving up an important lever. If Biden does the same, Egypt and other autocrats in the region will know they have nothing to fear from Washington's renewed talks on human rights.

However, the administration seems inconsistent. Rather than offering hard truths about human rights, it approved $ 200 million in arms sales to Egypt in February, claiming that the sale "served the interests of the United States and the world." In April, the Soltan's government filed a lawsuit against Beblawi on the grounds that the former prime minister, who had lived in the United States as a representative of Egypt at the International Monetary Fund, enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The case remains active pending a judge's decision on the immunity issue.

Biden appears to have softened Sisi, praising him for his recent role in ending the violence in Gaza. As a first step, the government is offering a “constructive dialogue” with Cairo on human rights issues. But the United States has embarked on this path before: Similar dialogues under Obama and former US President George W. Bush have addressed human rights issues with no visible impact on the deepening repression of Egypt.

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

First, the State Department should refuse to grant a national security waiver of $ 300 million in military aid. That will show Washington is serious and will give Cairo a strong motivation to speak in good faith. The administration should also undertake not to routinely issue such waivers in the future, but only as recognition of the improvement in performance on the way to comprehensive changes.

Second, US officials should make it clear that everything is on the table in constructive dialogue, not just what Washington and the Egyptian side are happy to discuss. What the United States must do instead is listen carefully to the authentic and thoughtful voices of Egypt's own activists, and align US human rights demands with those voices' recommendations.

There are voices like that. In May, five respected, independent Egyptian human rights groups announced an "urgent action" package that the regime should press to halt the country's accelerating repression. These include the release of political prisoners, the end of indefinite detention before trial and the end of the state of emergency that has ruled the country since 2017, which has covered some of Egypt's most outrageous human rights violations.

These measures should be a basic requirement in all US talks with the Egyptian government. Implementing these measures would not only significantly improve the human rights situation, but also help create a climate in which further progress can be made. Biden himself can reinforce the message by refusing to meet with Sisi at the United Nations General Assembly this fall and withholding a sign of approval the Egyptian leader longs for.

US interest in regional stability does not require Washington to ignore human rights; it demands that the White House take the issue seriously enough to push for real improvements. Egypt's record of repression and Cairo's central role in US policy in the Middle East make it an ideal starting point.

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