By Ariane Lavrilleux – The Africa Report
With Donald Trump gone, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has lost a powerful ally in Washington. US lobbyists are trying to improve his regime’s image with new the Democratic administration, which values the issue of human rights more than the former president.
“No more blank checks for Trump’s “favourite dictator,” said Joe Biden during his presidential campaign, using the expression that his predecessor had used to describe Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This change of course is considered radically different from that of Donald Trump, who had congratulated Sisi for his “very good work.” Meanwhile, it has fallen to the entire opposition to lead an unprecedented crackdown, according to NGOs.
Since Biden’s arrival to the White House, the new secretary of state Antony Blinken’s tone has softened somewhat. After his first phone call with Sameh Shoukry, his Egyptian counterpart, in February, Blinken reiterated the importance of maintaining the “strategic partnership” with Egypt, while specifying that the issue of human rights would be “central.”
After Trump’s defeat, the Egyptian embassy in Washington launched two counter-attacks, prepared by the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Last November, just days after Biden’s election, the company signed a contract with Egypt worth $780,000. A long-time contractor to Saudi Arabia, Brownstein had fought for continued US support for Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen – support that Biden ended in February 2021.
On the advice of three former Democratic and Republican elected officials who have taken up lobbying, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington devoted part of his first newsletter of 2021 to the formation of the new Egyptian parliament, which would be one of “remarkable diversity; 13 political parties, 472 party members, and 93 independent members… [and ] significant representation through female Members of Parliament (MPs) who are a notable feature of this legislative term.”
It is true that the number of women in government positions has never been so high. But without active participation from the opposition, the election is just a façade. As a study by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has shown, the powerful security services control the whole process, from the electoral laws to selecting the candidates that represent the main parties.
Several members of the opposition had also been arrested almost a year before the election, as was revealed by the independent Egyptian news source Mada Masr.
“The promotion of greater religious tolerance and national unity is the cornerstone of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s policy,” reads this two-page brochure, illustrated by a photo of Pope Tawadros, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, posing alongside the head of state. This view differs from the conclusions of the latest reports of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which criticises Egypt’s “systematic” failure to respect its citizens’ religious freedoms.
Discrimination against Copts
“The actions of the Egyptian president are rhetorical and rarely translate into concrete action. The Copts [Christian minority representing nearly 10% of the population] suffer a double injustice, since they are both the target of attacks, unpunished, from their compatriots, and the target of discrimination on the part of the government, ” estimates the US-NGO Coptic Solidarity, which verified and corrected on its site the assertions of the Embassy of Egypt.
The country boasts to have authorized the opening of 1,800 churches. In fact, the regularization of these places of worship is still under consideration, and more than 5,000 others are still awaiting their license, notes the NGO defending the Copts.
In addition, “a glass ceiling limits the presence of Copts to 2% in state bodies, when they are not simply excluded,” says Lindsay Griffin, director of development of Coptic Solidarity. “This institutional discrimination is not new, but Sisi seems to preserve it meticulously,” she laments.
On January 25, the tenth anniversary of the revolution, two Democratic representatives of the United States Congress announced the formation of a new committee specifically responsible for monitoring the human rights situation in Egypt in order to “rebalance bilateral relations.” Behind the scenes, these former diplomats criticize the military aid ($ 1.3 billion) that Washington gives to Cairo each year against no real value.
In 2013, Obama suspended military aid to Egypt.
Only Barack Obama’s administration suspended it in 2013 when supporters of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi were massacred in Rabia al-Adawiyya Square. Even though the suspension lasted less than a year, its (bad) memory remains vivid for the Egyptian authorities.
The election of Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, rekindled their fears. Especially since the new chairman of the Defense Committee in the House of Representatives (the House Armed Service Committee, which has a right to oversee defense policy and military interventions) is none other than Adam Smith, a fierce critic of Egyptian authorities, who voted in favor of the suspension of military aid in 2013.
Fearful of being subjected to this sanction again, Egypt bolstered its lobbying team last February, recruiting a keen connoisseur of the issue: Josh Holly, former head of communications for the House Armed Service Committee. Cost of the contract: $ 120,000 per year.
Brownstein is not the only private agency supporting the interests of Cairo in Washington. Between 2014 and 2018, the Egyptian intelligence services and the government spent $ 15.5 million on lobbying in the United States, according to the Al Monitor news site.
However, with the proliferation of NGO reports criticizing Egyptian power and the mobilization of former political prisoners who took refuge in the United States, Egypt’s image has continued to deteriorate, especially in the Democratic camp.
Despite the application of several layers of makeup, it is not easy to defend the indefensible.
The lobbying firm Glover Park, which had recruited several former elected Democrats with the aim of restoring the image of Egypt, paid the price in 2019. The day after an interview that President Sisi had given to the CBS, during which he had been unsettled by questions relating to human rights, the Egyptian embassy had terminated the $ 3 million contract with this cabinet.
“Whatever layers of makeup you apply, the problem is that media agencies must defend an indefensible reality,” said Samuel Tadros, researcher at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, a conservative think tank based at Washington.
Sisi knows that the partnership with the United States is vital to the military and the economy of his country.
Still: with the new Democratic era unfolding in Congress and the White House, Cairo cannot do without a public relations services. “Sisi is hesitant vis-à-vis Biden. On the one hand, he’s tempted to challenge Washington and say he’s going to forge ties with China and Russia. On the other hand, he knows that the partnership with the United States is vital for the military and for the economic development of his country,” continues the researcher.
Everyone at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry knows that it will take more than pretty glossy propaganda to woo the Biden administration – and even, quite simply, to maintain cordial relations.
In recent months, according to the Mada Masr website, Egyptian officials have made reports suggesting limiting the number of arrests and releasing a few opposition figures. They have not been heard yet. While a few releases of journalists have taken place in recent weeks, many opposition figures remain behind bars.