After four years of carte blanche given by Trump to the regime of al-Sisi, the advent of Biden in the White House was expected to disrupt the situation to some extent. Or, at least, this picture had emerged from the statements of the Democrat before the elections and in the months as president-elect: “Enough with Trump’s blank checks to his ‘favorite dictator’,” as the tycoon called his ally.
Cairo was expected to make a turn, even if just a symbolic one, on the issue of human rights. It did not happen, and yet relations—at least the military ones—have not been affected. While the Egyptian authorities, after the global pressure for the release of the three members of the EIPR NGO, gave in and let them go home (although the charges of terrorism against them remain), the latest episode has reminded Washington that the leopard does not change its spots: on Sunday, in Mounofiya and Alexandria, plainclothes agents arrested six family members of Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian activist and former political prisoner released in 2015 after two years in prison and a very long hunger strike, then deported to the United States after renouncing his Egyptian citizenship.
From there, he continues his work in opposition to the regime with the Freedom Initiative organization. And it was from there that he set off his “timebomb”: a complaint in the federal court in Washington DC against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi for the torture he suffered in prison, in which he also named President al-Sisi and the head of the secret services, Abbas Kamel.
This is not the first time the regime has tried to stop Soltan by attacking his family. It had already happened in 2020: five of his family members were arrested, only to be released shortly after the American elections. However, his father has been in prison since 2013, sentenced to life imprisonment because he was one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned by al-Sisi. Mohamed himself was arrested for protesting after the August 2013 massacre of Islamist supporters in Rabi’a Square, the regime’s first act.
The November 2020 release fell under the category of goodwill gestures, similar to the one granted to the EIPR workers, to take down the sword that Biden seemed to have hung over the historic relationship with Egypt. One worry in particular was the intention to make arms sales dependent on the respect for human rights (see Saudi Arabia), as decided by Congress in December.
Yet, even though it’s true that Biden has not yet called al-Sisi (a fate shared by the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been getting more and more nervous about it), and even though the State Department has made it known that it will follow the case of the Soltan family, on Wednesday came the news of the approval to the sale of 168 Raytheon tactical missiles to Egypt, with a total value $197 million. They had been ordered by the Egyptian Navy for the Mediterranean and Red Sea coastal areas.
The sale also includes American technical and logistical support. The motivation was given by the State Department in a note: “Egypt continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East.” The move came in confirmation of the untouchable package of military aid guaranteed annually to Cairo, worth $1.3 billion.
That sum has solidified the relationship between Cairo and Washington over time, now difficult to put a dent in even in the post-Trump era, who was a sincere and unfailing admirer of al-Sisi. Since Biden’s victory was certified beyond any reasonable doubt, as anonymous officials told the independent agency Mada Masr, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had begun working on a series of proposals to shore up the alliance, from the regional role (regarding Libya and Palestine above all) to the possible easing of pressure on internal opposition. There could even be some releases from prison—excluding the Muslim Brotherhood—an option that would not go down well with the real decision makers, the secret services.
Something that was also worrying the regime was the establishment, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution on January 25, of the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, a sort of lobby formed by Democratic members of Congress to put pressure on Washington about Egypt. Now, the 168 missiles can make all its fears melt away.
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