The New American Administration and the Limitation of Hope
Last July, President-Elect Joe Biden tweeted, “No more blank checks for Trump’s favourite dictator” referring to Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi. While this tweet gives a clear indication that the relations between Washington and Cairo will not be the same under the new administration, it is an exaggeration to assume they will witness a massive transformation.
The expected tension between both countries could be attributed to two reasons: First, the issue of democracy and human rights is likely to be back on the Biden Administration’s agenda, even if not at the top. For four years, President Donald Trump could not care less about the widely reported human rights violations in Egypt. In a region plagued with violence and instability, Trump’s administration has adopted a security-centric strategy by supporting the authoritarian regimes in order to neutralize any threats against American interests in the Middle East. Therefore, Trump repeatedly showed his support to Al Sisi’s regime despite criticism levelled against its human rights record.
The second source of tension will be the expected deterioration in U.S. relations with Egypt’s regional allies. It is highly likely that Saudi Arabia will suffer a setback in its relations with the new administration owing to the reported war crimes in Yemen and, more importantly, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, which Biden has affirmed should not pass without punishment. Furthermore, the US-Israeli relationship might suffer the same malaise it suffered during the presidency of Barak Obama. Strained relations between the new American administration on the one hand and Riyadh and Tel Aviv, on the other hand, will presumably have a negative impact on the Al Sisi regime.
This is not to suggest that U.S.-Egypt relations will turn into open confrontation. For many decades, Egypt has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East/North Africa region. Both parties are currently cooperating on a number of regional issues: the war on terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fight in Libya, and the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the new administration will not go too far in its confrontation with the Egyptian regime.
Furthermore, Biden’s administration will predictably pursue Obama’s strategy of disengagement from the Middle East. In the summer of 2013, after the bloody coup d’état in Cairo, U.S. sanctions against Egypt proved not only be limited and inefficient, but also, they led the Egyptian regime to strengthen its relations with Russia and China, and to diversify its armament sources – steps that further weakened American influence on Cairo.
The impact of Joe Biden’s victory on the domestic politics in Egypt, despite the enthusiasm it has generated among democratic opponents, is largely symbolic. One could expect that Al Sisi’s regime will be scolded from time to time by the White House Spokesman or occasionally bothered by limited sanctions; nevertheless, the political status quo in Egypt is unlikely to be challenged in a serious way.
Mohammad Affan is the acting director of Al Sharq Strategic Research, the coordinator of Al Sharq Program on Political Islam, and the managing director of Al Sharq Academia. A medical doctor by training, he holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. Also, he obtained his MA degree in Comparative Politics at the American University of Cairo. His thesis was published in Arabic as a book titled: ‘Wahhabism and the Brotherhood: The Conflict on the Concept of the State and the Legitimacy of Power.’ In addition, he holds a post-graduate diploma in Civil Society and Human Rights from Cairo University, a diploma in Political Research and Studies from the Institute of Arab Research and Studies, and a diploma in Islamic Studies from The Higher Institute for Islamic Studies, Cairo. His research interests include Islamism and democratization in MENA region.