US faces “tough questions” over relations with Egypt after Gaza ceasefire | News from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
US President Joe Biden faces renewed scrutiny of US relations with Egypt – and its pledge to resist rights violations by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government – following 11 days of deadly violence in the Gaza Strip.
Washington this month relied heavily on Egyptian mediators, who shuttled between Tel Aviv and Gaza to achieve and maintain a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian faction of Hamas, which rules the besieged Palestinian territory. .
In doing so, the Biden administration was faced with lingering questions about its pledge to take a “human rights-centric” approach in Egypt, which has long served as an interlocutor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the one of the few countries to engage with Israel and Hamas.
The American president had previously mentionned There would be “no more blank checks” for el-Sisi, whom he called the “favorite dictator” of his predecessor Donald Trump, but some rights activists say Biden has already broken that pledge.
“Once again, we see that nothing has changed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington, DC-based think tank.
“[Antony] Blinken did not meet a single representative of civil society during her stopover in Cairo, ”she said of the US Secretary of State’s visit to the Egyptian capital last week to support the ceasefire. fire.
“He didn’t say more about human rights than [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the Trump administration before him.
In two calls between Biden and el-Sisi this month – the first since Biden took office in January – the US president “thanked Egypt for its successful diplomacy,” according to a White House statement. “President Biden underscored the importance of a constructive human rights dialogue in Egypt,” the statement added.
During Wednesday’s visit to Cairo, Blinken also affirmed the United States’ “strategic partnership” with Egypt.
He told reporters he had “a long discussion and exchange on human rights” with the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed. Morsi. El-Sisi was last re-elected in 2018, running with virtually no opposition after the arrest of his main challenger and several candidates dropped for intimidation.
Seth Binder, advocacy manager for the Middle East Democracy Project (POMED), said the Biden administration’s expression of gratitude “misinterpreted” the situation and sent the wrong message to Cairo.
Important meeting with Egyptian President Sisi today. I expressed President Biden’s appreciation for Egypt’s critical ceasefire mediation efforts and affirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt. pic.twitter.com/NzW83ivpAC
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 26, 2021
“The Egyptians are acting in their own interests,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t have to bend over backwards to try and congratulate them for doing what’s in their best interests.
“We can still work with them to negotiate a ceasefire, and at the same time put pressure on them and continue to center human rights in the relationship.”
The usefulness of El-Sisi
For el-Sisi, the timing for mediation in Gaza was “Manna from heaven,” said Michele Dunne, director and senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace program in the Middle East.
This increased the Egyptian leader’s relevance as the Biden administration sought to focus its foreign policy on other parts of the Middle East and the world, and allowed el-Sisi “to demonstrate its usefulness,” Dunne said. at Al Jazeera.
She noted that the Egyptian president this time embraced the political advantage of mediating with Hamas, compared to the Gaza war in 2014, in which he treated Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and supported aggression. Israeli.
“I am sure Sisi hopes that his usefulness in his dealings with Hamas and perhaps his usefulness in helping with humanitarian aid in Gaza will enable him to better understand human rights and other issues in the relations. Egyptian-American, ”Dunne said.
The most recent round of engagement comes as el-Sisi fought not only the stated position of the Biden administration, but also US lawmakers who have become increasingly critical of military aid. US dollars to Egypt, which totals $ 1.3 billion per year.
Pressure on Biden
In recent years, Congress has regularly passed legislation requiring the State Department to certify that Egypt is taking action to meet human rights standards before funds are released.
Last year, Congress passed a bill that makes $ 75 million of that aid conditional on Cairo’s release of political prisoners and other human rights standards – and does not contain provision for a State Department waiver.
Some in the United States have also questioned the broader strategic importance of Egypt, once considered a certainty given Cairo’s influence in the Arab world, controlling the Suez Canal – a commercial artery connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea – and its land border with the Gaza Strip. .
Still, the Biden administration has shown it may not pursue a policy overhaul, dismaying rights advocates and some lawmakers by approving a $ 197 million sale of missiles and related equipment to Egypt in February.
It came just a month before the State Department’s annual human rights report denounced a long list of abuses in Egypt, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, crackdowns on journalists and civilians. political opponents and violence against the LGBTQ community.
El-Sisi’s government has overseen a massive campaign of arrests of alleged rights defenders, journalists and other critics – and around 60,000 Egyptians remain in jail.
US-based Egyptian human rights activists have also recently accused the Egyptian government of detaining their relatives in Egypt in order to pressure them into being silent – an accusation which el-Sisi has dismissed. but over which rights groups have raised serious concerns.
“The current conflict has raised uncomfortable questions and political dilemmas that the Biden administration does not want to resolve,” Dunne told Al Jazeera. “And they’re going to have to face a lot of tough decisions.”