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Biden hits out at US support for Egypt's Sisi

A week after Cairo released an American student jailed for holding a protest sign, Biden issues a warning to Trump's 'favourite dictator'
Taking to Twitter, Biden called the Egyptian government's ongoing crackdown 'unacceptable' (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

Joe Biden has issued a stern warning to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, saying if elected president there would be "no more blank checks for Trump's 'favourite dictator'."

Welcoming last week'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 US President Donald Trump's relationship with Sisi on Sunday, saying Cairo's crackdown on human rights would not be ignored by his administration.

Most national polls show Biden leading the president, with Trump having lost significant ground in six battleground states that clinched his electoral college victory in 2016.

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"Mohamed Amashah is finally home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable," Biden tweeted, before vowing to put a stop to the US's "blank checks" to Egypt. 

Biden's tweet referred to Trump's remarks during that last year's G7 summit, when the president asked "where's my favourite dictator?". 

At least 10 US and three Egyptian officials were in the room at the time. According to reports, many said they thought Trump was making a joke, but the remark reportedly prompted silence from the group.

At the time, Amashah had already been languishing in an Egyptian prison without trial for five months, having been arrested in April 2019 for holding up a sign in Cairo's Tahrir Square that read "freedom for all prisoners".

The Egyptian government has cracked down heavily on any form of dissent since Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup. At least 60,000 people have been imprisoned during the last seven years, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

The Trump administration has done little to pressure Egypt amid its crackdown on free speech, despite several US citizens caught in the crosshairs. 

Soltan, who Biden referred to in his tweet, is a US citizen who was imprisoned by Egypt for nearly two years after being arrested for mediating between foreign media and anti-coup protest leaders at Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013. At least 800 protesters were killed during the demonstrations. 

Hegazy, also mentioned in Biden's tweet, was an Egyptian LGBT activist who was arrested in 2017 after raising a rainbow flag at a Cairo rock concert. In an article published in 2018, Hegazy revealed she had been electrocuted and subjected to psychological torture during her three months in jail. She killed herself last month in exile in Canada having being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed Amashah's release and thanked Egypt "for its cooperation in his repatriation", before calling on the government "to stop unwarranted harassment of US citizens and their families who remain there". 

Conditioning $1.3bn annual US aid?

Members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, have in the past publicly raised the issue of American political prisoners in Egypt. But Trump himself has lavished praise on Sisi on every occasion the two leaders have met. 

The Trump administration and US legislators have also resisted calls for imposing conditions on US aid to Egypt in order to push Cairo to improve its human rights record. Egypt receives $1.3bn in US assistance annually.

In 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did freeze $195m in military assistance to Cairo amid concerns over Egyptian cooperation with North Korea, as well as Sisi's crackdown against civil society. 

Tillerson initially conditioned the aid on Egypt ending its cooperation with North Korea, resolving the case of 43 staff members from American and German NGOs and repealing or amending a repressive law regulating the work of NGOs. 

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Less than a year later, the Trump administration reversed the decision, announcing that it was releasing the suspended aid, despite Sisi's government failing to fully meet even one of the US's conditions.

Most recently, rights groups have been calling on Cairo to release detainees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, but according to HRW, the Egyptian government has used the virus to further tighten its grip on political freedoms. 

"President al-Sisi's government is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, Egypt's abusive Emergency Law," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said in a statement in May. 

While Biden has shared his views against conditioning US aid to Israel, he has not directly commented on his plans for Egyptian foreign aid, should he win in the US's November presidential elections. 

Notably, early in 2011, when he served as President Barack Obama's VP, Biden defended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, despite massive popular protests calling for his resignation. 

At the time, Biden called Mubarak a "very responsible" ally and said he "would not refer to him as a dictator". 

Mubarak, who had enabled corruption, jailed and tortured dissidents and ruled the North African country for close to 30 years, was toppled from power in a popular protest in February of that year.