Biden and Sisi: Business as usual in US-Egypt ties?

Palestinians wave Egyptian flags while sitting in a vehicle parked beneath a giant billboard depicting Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. [Getty]
5 min read
08 June, 2021
Analysis: By brokering the Gaza ceasefire, Egypt has gained diplomatic leverage and restored its role as a regional mediator, with the Biden administration willing to overlook human rights abuses to protect mutual interests.

When violence erupted in Gaza last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was not on speaking terms with US President Joe Biden.

However, Biden finally initiated much-awaited direct contact with Sisi only hours before Egypt brokered a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas.

Biden's delay in calling Sisi regarding Gaza and Israel was even criticised by US media.

Egypt is restoring its role as a regional catalyst and mediator, and opening a new page with the Biden administration

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the US administration, arguing that a presidential call was not required in the partnership with Egypt.

"We have been very closely aligned, in touch and working in lockstep with our partners in the region… the way diplomacy works, that does not always require a call from a global leader," Psaki told reporters in Washington.

By brokering the ceasefire, Egypt has undoubtedly gained diplomatic leverage, restoring its role as a regional catalyst and mediator, and opening a new page with the Biden administration. 

A member of the Palestinian security forces stands in front of an Egyptian aid truck arriving at the Rafah border crossing, which connects the Gaza Strip to Egypt, on May 23, 2021.[AFP via Getty]
A member of the Palestinian security forces stands in front of an Egyptian aid truck arriving at the Rafah border crossing, which connects the Gaza Strip to Egypt, on May 23, 2021. [AFP via Getty]

"Because one of the main objectives of the US is to protect Israel, Biden had to save [Israel]. Contacting Sisi for the latter had unswerving influence on Hamas," Egyptian political sociologist Said Sadek told The New Arab.

"Other rival regional leaders did not spoil Sisi's role [in engineering the truce]," he added. "He was the primary mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians [at the time when] pragmatic politics took over and relations got back to normal."

Business as usual?

On 24 May, Biden made a second phone call to Sisi, during which the two presidents discussed topics including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Egypt's role in handling the situation in Libya and Iraq.

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Egypt was especially concerned about Biden's stance on the Ethiopian dam. This is still relatively unclear, ruling out a possible military intervention on the parts of Egypt and Sudan.

"Biden acknowledged Egypt's concerns about access to Nile River waters and underscored the US interest in achieving a diplomatic resolution that meets the legitimate needs of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia," reads the White House statement on the second call between Sisi and Biden.

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed el-Orabi stated that Biden's second call implies "a change of heart."

"Since the new administration assumed power….it had no definite stance towards the Renaissance Dam," the former high-level diplomat said in an interview with Egyptian state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.

"I think it's a clear sign that the US seeks to firmly intervene in order to solve this crisis and preserve Egypt's water security… I think the US now perceives the Ethiopian regime differently than before," he added.

Human rights violations are no longer a stumbling block for future ties between Cairo and Washington

Return of the blank cheque?

Since Biden assumed power, his relationship with Egypt has been characterised by state apathy. Yet his administration made a surprising move in February when the US agreed to an arms deal with the Egyptian Navy worth around $200m, a move seen by analysts as contradictory to Biden's earlier comments on Sisi.

Observers believe that human rights violations are no longer a stumbling block for future ties between Cairo and Washington.

On 26 May, after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met Sisi on a regional tour of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, the topic was briefly mentioned.

"The Secretary stressed the importance of human rights, and the two leaders agreed to engage in a constructive dialogue," US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in an official statement, adding no further details.  

When Blinken spoke to Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry over the phone back in February, he informed his Egyptian counterpart that human rights would be "central" to the relationship between Cairo and Washington.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on 26 May, 2021. [Getty]
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on 26 May, 2021. [Getty]

However, the US administration has remained passive about the subject.

Many believe that Biden's earlier statements on Egypt were just empty threats used for political propaganda and that the US will keep offering "blank checks for [former US President Donald] Trump's favourite dictator," as long as it is in America's best interests.

"So far, the Biden administration is not living up to its promises to hold Egypt's authoritarian government to account. Instead of 'no more blank checks' for Sisi, we are back to 'business as usual,'" said Todd Ruffner, the advocacy director of the US-based Freedom Initiative, founded by prominent Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan.

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"The US administration must make clear it expects more out of [its] allies, and that there are consequences to brutally oppressing your people and quashing all dissent. But instead, Egypt will feel comfortable continuing to dictate the terms of the bilateral relationship," Ruffner added.  

"Of course, the US government must balance its strategic interests and the emphasis on universal values; but these first four months of the administration have been a real missed opportunity to centre human rights in the relationship."

The Biden administration is not living up to its promises to hold Egypt's authoritarian government to account. Instead of 'no more blank checks' for Sisi, we are back to 'business as usual'

Most recently, Biden has asked Congress to approve $1.8bn in US military aid to Egypt next year, an action condemned by local and international rights groups. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.

"Deviating from the standard $1.3bn request in bilateral aid to Egypt could have sent a strong signal to the Egyptian government, but instead it believes it can continue on its current path without any consequence," Ruffner argued.

Sisi has been accused by local and international rights advocates of overseeing Egypt's worst crackdown on human rights in decades, with thousands of his critics behind bars, some suffering medical negligence to the point of death, while dozens have been executed. Many others have been detained for years without trial or have disappeared.

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The looming question now is whether mutual interests outweigh philosophical differences. "The issue of human rights has always represented a foreign policy tool to exert pressure on other countries and to satisfy domestic groups, but it has never been translated into [influential] policies," Sadek stated.

"Bilateral relations will continue [no matter what]. And here American pragmatism prevails as…opposition forces have proven to be too weak to rely on as alternatives [to Sisi's regime]," he added.

"Remember, Biden was already Vice-President when Sisi came to power in 2014."

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create security or freedom of movement issue.