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Egypt / US: It will take more than glossy propaganda to win over the Biden administration

By Ariane Lavrilleux
Posted on Friday, 9 April 2021 19:02

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the InterContinental Barclay hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.”

Counter-attacks

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.

This did not prevent the ambassador from issuing a second newsletter at the end of January, once again praising the government’s commitment to “religious diversity”, and, more precisely that “no Egyptian’s rights and duties should be determined by their religion.”

“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

“President Al-Sisi does talk occasionally about fraternity between all Egyptians or about ‘renewing of religious discourse,’ but this remains rhetorical as it is rarely translated into concrete policies and actions. […] The Copt, suffer the double injustice of not only living under systematic discrimination by the Egyptian government, but also endure attacks from neighbours and regular members of Egyptian society who attack Copts and their properties with impunity,” says the American NGO Coptic Solidarity, in a pamphlet it released that has verified and corrected the Egyptian embassy’s claims on its website.

Cairo congratulated itself for having authorised the opening of 1,800 churches. In reality, the regularisation of these places of worship is under review, and more than 5,000 others are still waiting for their licence, according to the Coptic defence NGO.

Furthermore, “a glass ceiling limits the presence of Copts to 2% in state bodies, even when they are not simply excluded,” Lindsay Griffin, development director of Coptic Solidarity, tells us. “This institutional discrimination is not new, but Sisi seems to meticulously preserve it,” she says.

On 25 January, the 10th anniversary of the revolution, two Democrats of the US Congress announced the formation of a new committee specifically charged with monitoring the human rights situation in Egypt in order to “rebalance bilateral relations.” These former diplomats criticise the military aid ($1.3bn) that Washington gives each year to Cairo without any real reciprocity.

Only Barack Obama’s administration suspended it in 2013, when supporters of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi were massacred in Rabia al-Adawiyya Square. Even though this suspension lasted less than a year, this (bad) memory remains vivid for the Egyptian authorities.

Biden’s election has revived their fears, as he was Obama’s vice-president. This is especially the case as the new chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, which oversees military interventions and defence policy, is none other than Adam Smith, who is a fierce critic of the Egyptian government and voted in favour of suspending military aid in 2013.

Deteriorated image

Fearing that it would be sanctioned again, Egypt strengthened its team of lobbyists last February by recruiting Josh Holly, the former head of communications for the House Armed Service Committee. Egypt is paying him a salary of $120,000 per year.

Brownstein is not the only private agency defending Cairo’s interests in Washington. Between 2014 and 2018, Egypt’s security services and government spent $15.5m on lobbying in the US, according to the news website Al Monitor.

However, with the proliferation of NGO reports criticising the Egyptian government and the large number of former political prisoners who have taken refuge in the US, Egypt’s image has continued to deteriorate, particularly with Democrats.

The lobbying firm Glover Park, which had recruited several former elected Democrats tasked with improving Egypt’s image, paid a heavy price in 2019. The day after President Sisi gave an interview with the television network CBS, during which he became flustered when asked questions about human rights, the Egyptian embassy terminated its $3m contract with the firm.

“Whatever layers of make-up you apply, the problem is that communication agencies have to defend an indefensible reality,” says Samuel Tadros, a researcher at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Nevertheless, with the new Democratic era opening up in Congress and the White House, Cairo cannot do without a public relations department. “Sisi has mixed feelings about Biden. On the one hand, he is tempted to defy Washington and say he will build ties with China and Russia. On the other hand, he knows that the partnership with the United States is vital for the army and for the economic development of his country,” says Tadros.

In the Egyptian foreign ministry, everyone knows that it will take more than glossy propaganda to win over the Biden administration – and even, quite simply, to maintain cordial relations.

In recent months, reports the Mada Masr website, Egyptian officials have written memos suggesting that the number of arrests be limited and that some opposition figures be released. They have not acted on those suggestions for the moment. While a few journalists have been released in recent weeks, many opposition figures, those accused of terrorism, remain behind bars.

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