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Biden needs to confront el-Sisi on human rights

Advocates say the US president emboldened the Egyptian leader during last month's COP27, will he do so again in Washington this week?

Analysis | Africa

As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visits Washington for President Biden’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week, I am reminded of my own recent trip to Cairo during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, last month, when Jean Jacques Rousseau’s words lingered in my mind: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” 

Though Rousseau’s vision of a modern state may not be the ideal, his image of men and women chained to a form of governance to which they did not consent was apt; not only are there tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, but the chains of the state extend far beyond those who are physically detained. Untold scores are trapped under travel bans, unable to see family members abroad, pursue professional or educational opportunities, or escape Egypt before they themselves are detained. 

But at the COP27 conference itself, and later in Cairo, I walked around free, unencumbered by the fear that my fellow human rights activists have learned to live with.  

I began my trip in Sharm El-Sheikh, where brave human rights defenders risked provoking the ire of Egypt’s government by speaking up publicly against state repression and calling for the release of political prisoners — prominently among them, the release of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who had been on a partial hunger strike for over 200 days and stopped taking water at the commencement of the COP27 summit. 

His plight drew attention around the world. German Chancellor Olaf Sholz called for his release, along with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk and countless others. Prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg boycotted the conference, calling it an exercise in greenwashing. Prior to COP27, U.S. lawmakers urged President Biden “to press the Egyptian government to release…activists and demonstrate its commitment to inclusive engagement with the full range of stakeholders on climate solutions.” Egypt’s abysmal human rights record stole the spotlight as Biden arrived in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Yet the president remained silent. His body language spoke volumes, however, as he was captured on film and in photographs jovially chatting with al-Sisi, congratulating him for hosting the summit and praising his leadership on climate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared just as friendly in photographs that showed her holding Sisi’s arm, head tilted toward him like schoolchildren whispering at the back of the line. President Biden’s speech made no mention of the political environment in Egypt, nor did it acknowledge that Egypt has detained environmental rights defenders and barred others from travel. Instead, he announced a joint U.S.-Germany-EU decarbonization package for Egypt worth $500 million.

As President Biden left Egypt, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the president had directed his team to work through a set of individual cases of political prisoners in Egypt. “There is a question about the extent to which trying to resolve these cases diplomatically is best done through public pressure or private engagement,” Sullivan said. These words echoed the claims I heard from some Egyptians connected to the government — that by making Alaa’s case so public, the family and Alaa himself jeopardized his release. In my two decades as a human rights activist, I have heard similar words from rights-abusing governments around the world. Rarely, in my experience, does staying silent lead to justice.  

By the time I got to Cairo, the impact of the U.S. visit was already palpable. In the weeks leading up to the COP27 summit, Sisi had been scared, people told me, so defensive that he launched a new crackdown in the days leading up to and even during the summit, imprisoning or disappearing more than 800 people. Egyptian authorities also attempted to cast doubt on Alaa’s hunger strike and discredit calls for his release. Human rights defenders I spoke to fear an even more brutal crackdown in the weeks and months to come.

The chummy U.S. visit was not the first friendly overture. In June, Biden met with Sisi on the sidelines of his trip to Saudi Arabia for the GCC Summit, not long after his now famous fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Though the White House readout of the meeting was robust and explicitly included a discussion of human rights, it precipitated little change. In September, citing “clear and consistent progress” on the release of political prisoners, the United States withheld only a portion of the $300 million in military aid that Congress had specified was contingent on human rights improvements.  

Both the White House and Pelosi’s office insisted that human rights concerns were raised with Sisi in private; time will tell whether it had any effect. But even if in the coming weeks dozens or even hundreds of political prisoners are released, serious damage has been done.  

If President Biden is serious about centering human rights, he should not meet with Sisi in Washington this week unless he first receives concrete commitments on human rights, including the release of the hundreds of prisoners detained in the days before and during the climate summit.   

With two more years in office, Biden needs a reset of his approach to human rights abusers, one that centers the victims and civil society, not the abusers. In Egypt, instead of lifting up human rights defenders, the United States put them in more danger. Rather than using his public platform to draw connections between a healthy planet and a robust democracy, Biden offered a $500 million gift to an autocrat. I left Cairo and returned to Washington with souvenirs, photos of the pyramids, and a deep sense of disappointment. 

President's Biden and el-Sisi, COP27, November 2022. Photo: White House
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