BY Michael Wahid Hanna – WPR –
In recent weeks, Egypt has released a handful of high-profile political prisoners, including three journalists, Khaled Dawoud, Solafa Magdy and Hossam el-Sayyad. Dawoud, who had become a leader in the opposition al-Dustour, or Constitution party, was arrested in 2019 following the outbreak of brief anti-government protests. Magdy and Sayyad, who are married, were also caught up in the same wave of arrests in the fall of 2019. In an email from his political party’s media office, Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, the influential nephew of former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, noted their releases approvingly, while adding that he looked forward to other such cases involving “politicians, journalists and rights activists.”
For those paying close attention to events in Egypt, it seemed to indicate the possibility that the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi might be poised to take more concrete steps to repair its damaged international reputation as well as its strained relationship with the United States. Since then, however, Cairo has taken no further action, raising the obvious question of whether Egypt is willing to do even the bare minimum required to rehabilitate its image abroad. Perhaps even more importantly, the lack of further progress raises another important question: Beyond atmospherics, will any of this fundamentally affect the underlying fundamentals of U.S.-Egypt relations?
Throughout the transition following the U.S. presidential election and then as the Biden administration settled into office, observers kept a running tally of the sequencing of high-level communications between the Biden team and its counterparts abroad. The order or absence of such direct contact on the part of both President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was interpreted, as always, as a symbolic measure of their priorities. One of those conspicuous early missing calls was to Egypt; Biden himself still has had no interaction with Sisi.
For Egypt, the message sent by the United States may be unwelcome, but it is not wholly surprising. Even prior to Biden’s inauguration, Egyptian diplomats and other high-level officials had been busy thinking about how to shore up the bilateral relationship. Some of that thinking naturally related to Egypt’s human rights record, which lies at the heart of the country’s abysmal image abroad. In addition to the requisite hiring of new high-priced lobbyists in Washington, some in Cairo advocated specific fence-mending steps on this sensitive file.
For Egypt, this stood in stark contrast to the ease with which they had operated during the Trump years, when the administration in Washington paid little heed to concerns about human rights and diplomacy and was more than happy to engage with the man Donald Trump once referred to as his “favorite dictator.”
Even among hard-line Egyptian leaders and officials, there is now a recognition that Egypt has at least a public relations problem that it must manage, but there remains an implacable unwillingness to actually take the serious and necessary steps to begin the business of repair. Egypt has thousands of political prisoners, many of them well-known both at home and abroad. If it chose to engage, even if only at the level of public relations, the Egyptian state could organize prisoner releases that would garner it significant positive press coverage and stave off the criticisms it now faces.
But such tactical moves run counter to the animating ethos of the Sisi regime, which views all such steps through the prism of the lessons learned from Egypt’s uprising of 2011 and the tumultuous and failed democratic transition that followed. Chief among those lessons is that even limited freedoms and controlled opposition politics will create the space and opportunity for meaningful dissent. The Egyptian security establishment has come to see the late period of the Mubarak era as a permissive environment that fueled the unrealistic expectations of the 2011 uprising.
The Sisi regime has been monomaniacal in its repression and fastidious in crushing even rudimentary forms of nonconformity.
As such, the Sisi regime has been monomaniacal in its repression and fastidious in crushing even rudimentary forms of nonconformity. Fence-mending through prisoner releases is a difficult concession for a regime constructed in this fashion, even one that understands that its standing abroad is contingent on such steps.
There has never been a moment of course correction for the Sisi regime, and the rigidity with which it views politics and public life may make it incapable of engaging, even cosmetically, with a fence-mending agenda that requires retreat from its core convictions.
However, the Sisi regime is also likely relying on the power of inertia to sustain its key relationships, including with the United States. While a phone call with Biden may not be forthcoming, the chilly theatrics of U.S.-Egypt relations have not altered the basic parameters of bilateral ties, grounded in longstanding military partnership and significant security assistance. Beyond that, the Biden administration’s agenda is crowded, particularly domestically, and Egypt is understandably not a major priority, even within the Middle East. Egypt may bristle at such a demotion, but with Washington’s attention focused elsewhere, there have been no significant costs for the continuation of its present course.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a non-resident senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.
PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Bucharest, Romania, June 19, 2019 (AP photo by Vadim Ghirda).