Were Biden's warnings to Sisi just empty threats?
Believing in Biden's influence to enforce change in their homeland, many anticipated a US president who would pave the way for some forms of freedom in a country ruled by an iron fist.
The question now is whether human rights and democracy in Egypt are still on the top of the Biden administration's agenda since he took office.
In an unexpected move, the US State Department announced on 16 February that the US had approved to sell Cairo, as a non-NATO ally, weapons worth $197 million in a deal to be agreed later by Congress.
The arms deal entailed Raytheon missiles for the Egyptian navy to improve coastal defence, the State Department announced, calling Cairo "an important strategic partner" in the Middle East.
Since 1979, when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, Cairo has been one of the largest recipients of US military aid, receiving up to $1.3 billion in annual assistance.
|Biden would never jeopardise US ties with Egypt, and Sisi is well-aware of this fact. What Biden said about human rights in Egypt was just a means to appease the public|
"This proposed sale is a routine replenishment of naval defence surface-to-air missiles. It serves US and global interests by enhancing the Egyptian navy's ability to defend Egypt's coastal areas and approaches to the Suez [Canal]. And, of course, the Egyptian navy plays an important role in ensuring freedom of navigation and safe passage through the Suez," Ned Price, US State Department spokesperson, said during a press briefing on 17 February.
The arms deal led many to question the seriousness of Biden's stance towards human rights in Egypt, especially since it was announced just hours after Egyptian authorities raided the homes of a number of relatives of Egyptian-American activist and rights defender Mohamed Soltan, who had been jailed for two years by authorities before they revoked his Egyptian citizenship and deported him back to the US in May 2015.
|Read more: Biden and Sisi: A favourite dictator no more?|
Two of Soltan's cousins were detained during the raids, while another with a broken leg was ordered to turn himself in after having the cast removed, according to Soltan's lawyer Eric Lewis.
Not only that, a number of family members of other activists - currently in self-exile outside Egypt - have recently been detained as well, a sign of defiance to the US administration and human rights groups.
"While the timing [of the arms deal] is terrible, the substance of the announcement has also given the rights community serious pause about whether this administration is serious about making human rights a priority," Todd Ruffner, the advocacy director of US-based Freedom Initiative group, which Soltan heads, was quoted as saying by ABC News.
"At a time when the Egyptian government is escalating reprisals against rights advocates and their families, the United States must demand better from its apparent allies."
Sisi has been repeatedly accused by both local and international rights organisations of overseeing Egypt's worst crackdown on human rights in decades, with around 60,000 political prisoners currently behind bars.
|At a time when the Egyptian government is escalating reprisals against rights advocates and their families, the United States must demand better from its apparent allies|
Dozens of detainees held during Sisi's reign have already been executed, while other pre-trial detainees and inmates are reportedly suffering from human rights abuses or medical negligence.
This was not the first time the authorities targeted Soltan's relatives. Earlier last year, five of them were subjected to enforced disappearance for months before they appeared at detention centres, apparently in retaliation for the lawsuit Soltan had filed against former Egyptian prime minister Hazem El-Beblawi, who he accused of having him tortured, before an American court last June. The five were later released just before Biden won the election.
But did Sisi mean to deliberately defy and provoke Biden with the security crackdowns, or it was just a means of testing his tolerance? What seems clear is that Sisi has betted on Egypt being a long-time strategic ally of the US and Israel in the region.
"Biden would never jeopardise US ties with Egypt, and Sisi is well-aware of this fact. What Biden said about human rights in Egypt, whether during the electoral race, or after he took office, was just a means to appease the public rather than an attempt to enforce real change in Egypt," an Egyptian political analyst told The New Arab, on condition of anonymity.
|Read more: Ten years on, did Egypt's January 25 revolution fail?|
Interests come first
How Biden is likely to approach human rights and democracy in Egypt, as promised during his electoral campaign, without risking the US strategic alliance with Egypt remains to be seen.
"Well, as a general matter, what I would say is that we are committed to supporting Egypt's efforts to meet its self-defence requirements while also ensuring that respect for democracy and human rights returns to the forefront of US policy," Price told reporters in Washington.
However, in a bid to save face, Price said the new deal would not prevent the Biden administration from continuing to uphold its focus on democracy and human rights in Egypt.
|How Biden is likely to approach human rights and democracy in Egypt, as promised during his election campaign, without risking the US strategic alliance with Cairo remains to be seen|
"We are raising these reports with the Egyptian government, and we won't tolerate assaults or threats by foreign governments against American citizens or their family members," he said in reference to Soltan, while ignoring any mention of the recent detentions of other Egyptian activists' relatives.
One week later, however, in what could be seen as an attempt to make amends with angered rights groups and American media, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his Egyptian counterpart during a phone call that human rights would be "central" to Cairo-Washington relations.
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of Egypt's revolutionary struggle
"The secretary raised concerns over human rights, which he emphasized would be central to the US-Egypt bilateral relationship," Price said in a statement.
"The Secretary and the Foreign Minister highlighted the importance of the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, particularly in security and ongoing counterterrorism cooperation, and exchanged views on regional issues," he added.
But many are unconvinced. "Biden is attempting to look like a man who keeps his word," the Egyptian political analyst told TNA. "But given that no actual measures have been taken so far as to the human rights situation in Egypt, questions remain over his stance."
Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue
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