US faces ‘difficult questions’ on Egypt ties after Gaza ceasefire

Advocates question Joe Biden’s promise to take a rights-based approach to foreign policy amid Egypt-led mediation.

US President Joe Biden is facing renewed scrutiny over the United States’ relationship with Egypt – and his promise to stand up to rights abuses committed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government – in the wake of 11 days of deadly violence in the Gaza Strip.

Washington this month relied heavily on Egyptian mediators, who shuttled between Tel Aviv and Gaza to reach and maintain a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian faction Hamas, which governs the besieged Palestinian territory.

In so doing, the Biden administration has been confronted with lingering questions over its promise to take a “human rights centred” approach to Egypt, which has long served as an interlocutor in the Israel-Palestine conflict as one of the few countries that engages with both Israel and Hamas.

The US president had previously said there would be “no more blank checks” for el-Sisi, whom he called his predecessor Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator”, but some rights advocates say Biden has already fallen short of that commitment.

“Once again, we see that nothing has changed,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington, DC-based think-tank.

“[Antony] Blinken did not meet with a single civil society representative during his stop in Cairo,” she said of the US secretary of state’s visit to the Egyptian capital last week in support of the ceasefire.

“He said no more about human rights than [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the Trump administration before him.”

‘Strategic partnership’
In two calls between Biden and el-Sisi this month – the first since Biden took office in January – the US president “thanked Egypt for its successful diplomacy”, according to a readout from the White House. “President Biden underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights in Egypt,” the statement added.

On Wednesday’s visit to Cairo, Blinken also affirmed the US’s “strategic partnership” with Egypt.

He told reporters he had a “lengthy discussion and exchange on human rights” with the Egyptian leader, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi was most recently re-elected in 2018, running virtually unopposed after his main challenger was arrested and several candidates dropped out citing intimidation.

Seth Binder, the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), said the Biden administration’s expression of gratitude “misread” the situation and sent the wrong message to Cairo.

“The Egyptians are doing this out of their own interest,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t need to bend over backwards to try to congratulate them on doing what’s in their interests.

“We can still work with them on brokering a ceasefire, and at the same time pressure them and continue to centre human rights in the relationship.”

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