Trump’s defeat shocked Sisi.. How he intends to survive the Biden era is not clear

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Bahey Eldin Hassan
Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
While Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election could have been anticipated, it has caused a shock in Egyptian President Abdelfatah al-Sisi’s circles.
Egyptian regime media covered the US election as an existential event that could determine the fate of Sisi rather than that of President Donald Trump. The Egyptian media was preparing its audience for a Trump victory while attacking Biden, even after the latter claimed victory. But when Sisi finally congratulated Biden for his victory, even the talk show hosts most controlled by the government instantly flipped from publicly attacking Biden to celebrating him.
Trump was the most friendly US president in recent history towards Egypt’s regime, since President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Short of limited periods that witnessed serious pressure to support democracy, during President’s George W. Bush’s tenure at the turn of the century, and for 48 hours during the uprising in January 2011, American presidents were rather lukewarm towards all their Egyptian counterparts.
Trump was by contrast exceptionally warm towards Sisi and provided him with moral and political support which enabled Sisi to consolidate his brutal rule against the people and eliminate his competition within the military. Rather than criticise Sisi for such actions, Trump on more than one occasion praised the abilities of his “favourite dictator” to oppress his people, and protected him from the Republican-controlled-Senate’s anger towards Sisi’s violations of human rights.
Trump further restrained his State Department’s angry reactions towards Sisi’s reluctance to free American citizens from Egyptian prisons. Trump offered American mediation between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile dispute and clearly supported Sisi’s position. When Ethiopia walked away from the talks, Trump hinted that Sisi could bomb the Renaissance Dam, indirectly implying that the US would neither object nor criticise such a strike.
With Trump’s departure, the nature of the relationship will become different, and not only with Sisi, but even with international actors who are far more important to the US.
Yet the possible scenarios for the relationship between Egypt and the new administration will depend on several factors. One factor is how much of a priority Egypt will be for an American president inheriting a country massively polarised over its values and priorities.
Another factor affecting the new administration’s relationship with Egypt is Biden’s strategy in the broader region, which could range from complete withdrawal to limited engagement.
Moreover, Sisi’s own actions in the coming months will be important factors. For example in January 2011, President Obama’s administration was forced to change its policies and put Egypt at the top of its priorities.
Most analyses of Biden’s trajectory rest on the president-elect’s mention of Sisi by name, and his promise to stand against the latter’s human rights violation, stating “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator,'” which implies using American aid to pressure Sisi into easing his grip on Egyptians. But Sisi’s fears are much deeper, and probably come from Cairo before DC.
Seven years ago Sisi tested his ability to stand against American pressure in the aftermath of his bloody coup against Egypt’s first civilian and democratically elected president in seven decades. The problem is now different; Sisi no longer enjoys the popularity he had seven years ago, given the severe deterioration in the standards of living for Egyptians, and Sisi’s excessive brutality.
The massive support previously provided by the Gulf has stopped due to the severe crisis most oil-exporting countries are experiencing as a result of the unprecedented collapse in oil prices, which will likely take years to recover from.
Meanwhile Egypt is facing an unprecedented economic crisis due to the collapse of it’s foreign currency income from the Suez Canal, tourism, and expat remittances,  likely to exacerbate throughout 2021 given the Covid-19 pandemic, while foreign debt has reached USD 120 billion.
Sisi’s economic policies played a decisive role in exacerbating all these crises, especially given the cancerous spread of the military’s economic activities and the unproductive projects that do not yield job opportunities for civilians and which deter private national and international investment.
Therefore, the wind of change in America could turn into an unprecedented hurricane for Egypt. The Democratic and Republican parties in the US disagree over many internal and external issues, but they somewhat agree over their intolerance towards the human rights violations committed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Additionally another growing trend in the US sees that the current model of American-Egyptian partnership has run its course. The partnership started in the 1970s, and was not only a result of Egypt being the first Arab state to have peace with Israel but also because Egypt was one of the strongest powers in a vital region. Experts believe that Egypt, over the years, has lost its strategic importance to smaller Gulf states. They also believe that the Arab region is not as important to the US as it was throughout the past century.
Some of those who hold this view are part of Biden’s team. One of them authored a book (published days before Biden was elected) discussing the future of American policies towards Egypt and the Arab region under a new American president, and months before that wrote an article stating that Egypt could turn from a state that is too big to fail into one that is too costly to save.
If such an outlook prevails in the new administration, Sisi’s regime would face a political and economic seismic shock that would far surpass the issue of losing USD 1.3 billion of military aid. For 50 years, Egypt’s position as a special partner of the US has enabled it to become a priority as an aid-recipient state, even at the expense of more needing developing states.
The latest example of this is the recent loan from the IMF. The IMF overlooked its own requirements on a minimum degree of transparency, and its management further overlooked the perceptible increase in corruption, especially concerning the military, despite the demands of national and international rights organisations. If Egypt loses its special relationship with the US it will lose a primary motive to save it from the crises caused by poor governance, and will lose those who pressured international financial institutions to save Egypt under lenient conditions.
This is exceptionally challenging given that Egypt’s allies in the Gulf are unable to become an alternative safety net.
The internal variables in Egypt and the rapid deterioration in its regional and international stature could explain the erratic behavior of Sisi’s security agencies after Biden’s victory. They could explain why Sisi seems unable to see things as they really are; he sees everything under the lens of January 20, the date of Biden’s inauguration. An example is the recent arrest of three human rights defenders and Ministry of External Affairs’ confused statements which were disproportionately hostile. The Egyptian media echoed those statements in a warmongering manner directed towards unnamed international entities.
Perhaps this erratic behavior reflects that Sisi’s options are really poor and limited. When a general who has never been to war makes a choice, it is usually the choice of going to war. This is what Sisi has done with Egyptians since he took power in 2013, and it is why his first choice will run true to his form as a self-obsessed president whose legitimacy rests on oppression and the blood of thousands of innocent Egyptians. It will be the choice of someone who sees rectification of his policies as a personal defeat.
This is why Sisi will frame the possible rough development in his relationship with the US as a “defence of Egyptian freedom of choice,” “protection of the state’s stability,” and “resisting foreign pressure to restore the Muslim Brotherhood to political life and to later rule.” In the context of preparing for the possible fight for “national sovereignty” after Biden’s inauguration, Sisi is likely to become more repressive of civil society and liberals, and take more “hostages” to bargain over with the new American administration.
The arrest of three human rights defenders is a stark example. Adding the secular activist and human rights defender Alaa Abdelfatah to the Terrorism Watch List on November 23 is another expression of this policy. Sisi’s goal is not to go into an open confrontation with Biden, but to establish a rough tone to smoothen the positions of the new administration and bargain for the US not to exercise pressure on Sisi’ authoritarian governance.
It is a simple equation: securing the release of specific Egyptian individuals from prison in exchange for the continuity of authoritarianism against all Egyptians. In the context of those rough negotiations, Sisi is likely to open up to adversaries of the US, especially Russia and China, however this will be short-lived. This opening up will likely have a larger impact in the media that it will on the ground.
Sisi is in desperate need for mediation with Ethiopia. He is also in need of the backing of the US and its allies to keep Egypt financially afloat, given that it has for many years spent more than it produced and given its unwillingness to revise the policies that led it to such poor economic state and which have started in the 1950s.
Finally, considering that the military is the president’s main protector since the days of Nasser, the main decisions in Egypt since 1952 have never been solely taken by the president. The relationship with the US, since the late 1970s, has become one of the main issues that the president cannot make major decisions in without the military’s involvement. This is an open question that deserves visiting in the coming weeks and months.

Source: The New Arab

This post is also available in: العربية

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