President Biden’s pledge to put advocacy for democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy is off to a poor start in a key region: the Middle East. His administration has already retreated from his pledge to make Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah.” It responded equivocally to the power grab last month by Tunisia’s president, who threatens to dismantle the only Arab democracy – a fault only partly remedied by a phone call to the would-be strongman last weekend by national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Now the administration is facing a potentially decisive test of whether Mr. Biden’s rhetoric will be translated into meaningful action. Secretary of State Antony Blinken must determine in the next few weeks whether to withhold on human rights grounds $300 million of the $1.3 billion in military aid annually given to Egypt. The suspension is mandated by congressional legislation linking a portion of the aid to conditions such as releasing political prisoners and allowing media freedom. No one disputes that the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has failed to meet those tests; to the contrary, it is the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history. But Mr. Blinken has the authority to waive the conditions and deliver the full aid package, and Cairo’s Washington lobbyists are working overtime to win that pass.
If the administration yields, it will shatter any notion that this president will depart from the coddling of Mr. Sissi by previous administrations, with disastrous results for those in Egypt advocating for basic freedoms – and for Mr. Biden’s agenda. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it in a speech on the Senate floor last week, it would “send a bright, blinking message to the world that America talks a big game on democracy, but isn’t willing to do much about it.” Among the first victims of a retreat would likely be the dozen political prisoners whose death sentences were recently confirmed; they supported the democratically elected Islamist government that Mr. Sissi ousted in a bloody 2013 coup.
Then there are activists such as Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen who was imprisoned and tortured in Cairo after 2013 and now advocates for Egyptian human rights from a base in Washington. In an attempt to silence him, the regime has repeatedly arrested members of his family in Egypt; his father, who was already imprisoned, disappeared. In a recent visit to Washington, Egypt’s spy chief, Abbas Kamel, demanded to know why the U.S. government had not confined Mr. Soltan to a U.S. prison. It’s stomachturning to think that such chutzpah would be rewarded with a $300 million exemption.
Cairo’s lobbyists annually trot out the same tired arguments: that the United States needs Egypt for help in keeping the peace between Israel and the Palestinians, for fighting terrorism, for transit of U.S. warships through the Suez Canal. But as Mr. Murphy pointed out, in taking those actions the Sissi regime is merely pursuing its own vital interests; no bribery should be necessary. By withholding aid until the regime eases its repression, the United States would be pursuing what
Mr. Biden has defined as the crucial American interest of advancing democracy in a fateful global contest with autocracy. The decision on Egypt will show whether his commitment to that cause is more than rhetorical.