The Democrat presidential nominee warned Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah el Sisi that the days of a blank cheque would come to an end should Trump lose the November vote.
For years Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el Sisi and other autocrats in the Middle East have enjoyed a sense of impunity as they benefit from close personal ties with US President Donald Trump.
The Republican leader has dropped even the traditional lip service to human rights and the rule of law that previous administrations traditionally conditioned their support upon.
While the Obama administration praised Sisi’s 2013 coup that overthrew Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013, as ‘restoring democracy’, within a little over a few weeks it found itself condemning the very regime it had supported.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back." Obama said after the Rabaa massacre, effectively acknowledging the tactical importance of US-Egyptian relations while unable to ignore the unease brought about by abuses carried out by the regime.
Trump on the other hand has been willing to embrace his allies, warts and all, and went as far as calling Sisi his “favourite dictator” at an international conference. In September, the US president gave unapologetic backing to the Egyptian regime despite its clampdown on rare anti-government protests.
On the one hand, it’s clear that whoever wins the November 2019 US presidential election, the general nature of the relationship with Egypt is unlikely to change.
Joe Biden is no radical on US foreign policy and as vice-president was part of the Obama administration which tolerated Sisi’s human rights violations despite back channel pressure.
US policy on Egypt is largely defined by Cairo’s friendly posture on Israel and as that is unlikely to shift under Sisi, Biden will be unlikely to do anything that upsets the balance.
Nevertheless, the Democratic candidate is showing increasing intolerance for the excesses committed by the regime. Especially when they involve US citizens and go against American interests.
In January Biden condemned as an “outrage” the death of Moustafa Kaseem, an Egyptian-American who died on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison after he was arrested while on holiday in 2013.
But his most scathing rebuke came on Sunday evening with a tweet celebrating the release of an American citizen, Mohamed Amashah, from Egyptian prison.
Biden wrote: “Mohamed Amashah is finally home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable. No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’."
Referring to the former vice president’s comment, the Egyptian analyst Timothy Kaldas tweeted it was “exactly” what Cairo should worry about, describing increasing misgivings about Egypt among lawmakers of all stripes on Capitol Hill.
The Egyptian activist Mohamed Soltan, himself a former prisoner in Sisi’s jails, welcomed Biden's tweet, commenting: “Being on the right side of issues is what a great American leader is all about! Your voice is much appreciated.”
Soltan is also at the center of a lawsuit against Sisi’s former prime minister, Hazem Beblawy, over his detention and abuse at the hands of the Egyptian state.
Beblawy, who currently works as an IMF official in Washington, could see himself face a reckoning for his part in human rights violations.
For many in the US, the case has highlighted the pernicious influence of the Egyptian government buoyed by their relationship with Trump.
Mohamed Amashah is finally home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable. No more blank checks for Trump’s "favorite dictator." https://t.co/RtZkbGh6ik— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 12, 2020
Egyptian authorities stand accused of interfering in the US legal system by detaining Soltan’s relatives in Egypt in a bid to pressure him into dropping the case.
“The (Sisi) regime no doubt believes it can afford to indulge in this vile intimidation because of President Trump’s admiration for its leader, whom he has called “my favorite dictator.” wrote the Editorial board of the Washington Post.
US lawmakers have further described Egypt’s latest actions as a “transparent attempt to interfere with and undermine a judicial process in the United States.”
The pushback from Biden combined with crossparty anger over Egyptian interference in the Soltan case could mean Sisi is operating on borrowed time should the Democrats take the White House in November.
As things stand, Biden holds healthy leads in several key states, increasing the likelihood that for Sisi and others who have received ‘blank checks’ from Trump, it will not be business as usual come the new year.