Did Biden just sell out on his promise to get tough on Sisi?
As news of the arrests broke last week through the Freedom Initiative, US state department spokesperson Ned Price addressed the issue. He claimed they were "looking into" the arrests of Soltan's family, also saying "we have and we continue to engage the Egyptian government on human rights… and we take seriously all allegations of arbitrary arrest or detention…"
A pretty stock response, but at least it came swiftly, some might say.
But any notion of Biden putting into practice the hostile tone he adopted towards Sisi during the presidential campaign was dispelled quickly, when later the same day the Biden administration approved a $200 million sale of Raytheon missiles to the Sisi regime.
For those who held even the faintest hope that Biden might seriously review the special relationship between the US and Egypt, given the brutal actions of Sisi's totalitarian anti-human regime (described formally as "human rights abuses"), this is a major blow.
Biden has made a big deal, rightfully in the face of Trumpism, of emphasising human rights and claiming they are at the heart of "US values", which is allegedly the lens through which foreign policy must be practiced.
But, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, political leaders who often speak the most passionately on a subject do so in lieu of any will to take substantial action. In truth, if you review high profile human rights issues that arose in Egypt, the Trump administration would often superficially denounce while offering no substantial castigation.
|Biden's words about 'human rights' and 'US values' are useless unless they are backed up with tangible deeds|
Lest we forget it was the Obama-Biden administration that the US played the most crucial international role in normalising, justifying and rewarding Sisi's unending reign of terror.
It was Obama-Biden that categorically refused to describe the blood-soaked actions that brought Sisi to power as a "coup", precisely so they wouldn't violate their own laws that stop any US government financially aiding a regime that came to power via a military coup.
Though Obama paid lip service to "human rights" in Egypt, the reality is he withheld aid only until Sisi had become a "civilian" president via rigging the election and murderously eradicating the democratic opposition in the process.
With the coming to power of the authoritarian-friendly Trump, things in Egypt have been allowed to escalate to dramatic new levels of barbarism, all with the help of billions of US tax dollars.
All of this gives Sisi carte blanche to do pursue and expand the transformation of Egypt into a totalitarian kleptocracy - a genuinely human rights free zone. Biden's actions in selling the regime arms at a time when it is once again expanding its totalitarian reach will only embolden Sisi.
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In fact, the case of Soltan is particularly relevant here. In June last year, Soltan's family were arrested by the regime after he filed a lawsuit against Sisi's former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who he accuses of orchestrating his two-year detention and torture as a political prisoner.
Biden, who at that point was running to become president, tweeted specifically about these arrests, saying "torturing activists like… Mohamed Soltan and threatening their families is unacceptable," adding "no more blank checks for Trump's 'favourite dictator'."
When most of Soltan's family were released in November, following Biden's victory, it was widely considered as a gesture by the Sisi regime that they had heeded his warnings. Some even ventured that real change could be on the horizon.
While that seems unlikely (his father remains one of the thousands of Egypt's disappeared), even if it were true, it looks as though Sisi has returned to business as usual, as has Biden with the $200 million no strings attached weapons deal.
If it was accurate that Biden's July tweet and his hostile tone towards Sisi had been the catalyst for the initial releases of Soltan's family, this simply demonstrates the hold the US has over Sisi, and the ease with which the US could help Egyptian victims of the regime.
For this isn't just confined to Soltan. With Sisi's apparatuses of totalitarian rule mopping up domestic dissent, the regime's eye has been turning to exiled or expatriate dissidents for a while. It's hardly subtle - there has been a major intensification of what amount to "hostage arrests" of the families of exiled Egyptian dissidents as a means to silence them.
Egyptian activists in Turkey, the UK and Germany have reported "hostage arrests" and persecution of their families in Egypt, including ransacking their houses and charging family members with "joining a terrorist organisation" as a means to shut them up.
|Every time they sell this regime arms or give it billions of dollars in 'military aid', they are overtly normalising and encouraging its brutal behaviour|
An even more sinister aspect has emerged, with reports, including by Soltan, of Egyptian intelligence agents operating within foreign countries, including America, harassing and threatening dissidents. Soltan has had several "bump-ins" with regime agents in the US, while he's received phone calls telling him to "be careful" and threats against the life of his disappeared father.
This isn't appeasement by Biden, or indeed by successive US leaders - every time they sell this regime arms or give it billions of dollars in "military aid", they are overtly normalising and encouraging its brutal behaviour.
Biden's words about "human rights" and "US values" are useless unless they are backed up with tangible deeds that demonstrate that the US isn't going to fund and normalise the rampant human rights abuses against Egyptians.
Perhaps it's too early to tell if this kind of policy will manifest, but at the very first hurdle, Biden has simply failed. For Egyptians this is not some foreign policy game - it means ever-growing terror, reaching well beyond the borders of Egypt.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History Phd candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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