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'Biden is different': Egypt’s opposition has high hopes for new US president

Egyptian politicians in exile tell MEE they have made contact with the incoming administration and believe human rights are a key foreign policy
Hosni Mubarak meets with Joe Biden in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2010 (AFP)

Egyptian opposition groups and activists have welcomed Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, hoping that it will herald a departure from Donald Trump’s support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s autocratic government.

The Trump administration has backed Sisi despite reports by the US State Department highlighting massive human rights abuses by his government. 

Sisi, the general-turned-president, is accused by international rights groups of overseeing the country's worst crackdown on human rights in Egypt's modern history, with tens of thousands of his critics languishing in jails and scores of political prisoners executed.

'Biden’s statements before the election were very clear. We hope and expect that his administration will not choose interests over principles'

- Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour  

Yet Trump has repeatedly expressed his support for Sisi, and even touted the “chemistry” between them and described him as “his favourite dictator”.

In addition to the professed personal admiration, Trump has not answered the calls of human rights groups and Egyptian-American activists, who have been urging Washington to place human rights pre-conditions on the $1.3bn in US military aid to Egypt. 

Despite Biden’s previous statements in support of toppled Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, refusing to label him as a dictator, he said during his 2020 campaign that his administration would not support Sisi unconditionally. 

In a tweet in July, Biden issued a stern warning to Sisi, saying if elected president there would be "no more blank cheques for Trump's 'favourite dictator'".

Welcoming Egypt's release of Mohamed Amashah, an American medical student who had been imprisoned in Egypt without trial for 486 days, Biden issued a scathing attack on Trump's relationship with Sisi, saying Cairo's crackdown on human rights would not be ignored by his administration.

Days prior to the US election results, Egypt released hundreds of political prisoners. The latest among them were relatives of Egyptian-American human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, who announced on Friday, hours before Biden was projected to win, that five of his relatives detained in reprisal over his activism had been released. 

Biden had highlighted Soltan’s case in his criticism of Sisi four months ago, prompting analysis that the release was a sign of “backtracking” by Sisi once Biden’s victory became more likely.

'Biden is different'

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group now largely crushed by Sisi, was quick to welcome the results of the US election, urging Biden to “reconsider previous policies of support for dictatorships around the world”.

“We implore the Biden administration to repudiate the crimes and violations committed by tyrannical regimes against the rights of peoples,” the organisation, now labeled a terrorist group by Sisi’s government, said in a statement.

“We regard policies that ignore the free choices of people and which foster relations with authoritarian regimes as absolutely inappropriate. They represent a choice to stand on the wrong side of history.”

Ibrahim Mounir, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, described Biden’s statement as a signal of his possible change of approach towards Sisi. 

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Concerning Biden’s previous statements in support of Mubarak, Mounir said they possibly reflected the Barack Obama administration rather than the views of a Biden presidency. 

“Biden is different from Trump,” Mounir told Middle East Eye.

“When he spoke about Sisi, he said he wouldn't give him blank cheques. Let’s wait and see if he will follow through with that pledge.”

Egyptian liberal politician and opposition leader Ayman Nour said that the Egyptian National Action Group (ENAG), which he leads, has been in contact with the Biden campaign and received reassurances that the new administration would prioritise human rights issues in its relations with the Sisi government.

“Biden’s statements before the election were very clear. We hope and expect that his administration will not choose interests over principles,” he told MEE.

“There has been dialogue between us and some members of the Biden campaign,” he added.

“Their discussions with me indicate a serious willingness to advocate human rights in the region, not just in Egypt. I believe this will have a good outcome on human rights in Egypt and the Middle East."

Nour, the founder of the liberal al-Ghad Party, was the first candidate to ever run against Mubarak, in the 2005 presidential election, gaining seven percent of the vote despite claims of widespread vote-rigging. 

In the run-up to the vote, Nour, then a member of parliament, was arrested on charges of forging the founding documents of his party. His detention was decried by governments around the world, including the US government, as an assault on democracy.

Biden was 'not pro-Mubarak'

While Nour was released in March 2005 and allowed to campaign for his election, he was detained again following the elections and held for more than three years during a trial that was widely condemned as politically motivated. 

Former US President George W Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, publicly condemned his detention, but Biden was personally advocating for his release.  

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Moreover, Nour told MEE that then-senator Biden met his ex-wife after his detention in 2005 and expressed his solidarity. 

“As a senator, he was very concerned about my health condition," he said. "Then under Obama's presidency, he was personally following my case and my health conditions in jail, and lobbied the Mubarak government to release me. This shows that he was not really pro-Mubarak as perceived, because he was advocating the rights of Mubarak’s electoral rival.” 

“Maybe the coming days will show what a Biden’s administration would mean for relations with Egypt,” he added. 

Nour’s opposition group, ENAG, has urged Biden to raise human rights issues with Egypt, particularly the case of political prisoners detained since Sisi came to power in 2014. 

“We remind the president-elect that the Egyptian regime has been imprisoning more than 60,000 political prisoners, who have been suffering the worst human rights conditions for years, in addition to other routine practices by the regime such as execution of hundreds, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance of activists,” ENAG said on Saturday.

“We call on the new administration to raise all these files with the regime in Egypt, as this would be the real test of how serious the new American agenda is in supporting human rights, something that the president-elect stressed many times during his campaign.”

'Inconsistency' harms human rights 

Biden's pledge to change the course of Trump's embrace of authoritarian leaders may be a signal to the leadership in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that a new US administration is not willing to continue to give them a pass on human rights, according to Dalia Fahmy, associate professor of political science at Long Island University in New York. 

It also signals to the people living under these govenments that their democratic aspirations may gain international support, she added, pointing out that the results of Congress and Senate elections also matter for US foreign policy. 

"For years, Democratic members of Congress have condemned both Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their human rights violations. If Democrats win the Senate as well, authoritarian leaders in the Middle East should be very nervous," Fahmy told MEE.

"For decades, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were considered pillars of stability in the region. Today they are not. They are sources of instability. If they want to return to that position, they will have to rethink their domestic and foreign policy agendas. The Biden election might be a critical juncture for them to do so."

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Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has documented violations by successive Egyptian governments, said the Biden administration should “put the interest of the people rather than the rulers into considerations”.

“We want to see benchmarks for human rights and accountability for abuses before arms sales to authoritarian governments are agreed,” Amr Magdi, HRW’s Egypt researcher, told MEE.

“As a human rights organisation, we have highlighted Trump’s horrible record of turning a bling eye to human rights violations.”

Magdi urged the new administration to be “more consistent” with regards to dealing with human rights abuses around the world.

Whereas Trump called out violations by Iran and Venezuela, for example, Magdi said there should be attention to violations elsewhere. 

“While the US government may not be responsible for such abuses, its attitude has been very harmful for the human rights cause," Magdi said. 

"Trump’s inconsistency showed that the administration of the strongest government in the world did not care about human rights but rather furthering a political agenda.”