Advocates question Joe Biden’s promise to take rights-based approach to foreign policy amid Egypt-led mediation.
The Egyptian ambassador to the United States has suggested US legislators trying to curtail Washington’s $1.3bn in annual aid to Cairo are being “deceived by lies and falsehoods” propagated by members of a “terrorist organisation”.
A thread of tweets on Wednesday, attributed to Ambassador Motaz Zahran, but sent from the official account of the Egyptian embassy in Washington, DC, hailed decades of close ties while praising “the tremendous support to bolster the bilateral relations” shown by the administration of President Joe Biden and “the overwhelming majority of Congressional members”.
He added those legislators – seemingly unlike others – were “refusing to be deceived by lies and falsehoods propagated by people who belong to a terrorist organisation with a known record in disseminating hatred and inciting to violence through consistent outright lies and delusional tactics, by exploiting the values we all share, stand by and have inherent moral obligations to patronise, propagate for, and promote”.
the overwhelming majority of Congressional members who stand firm in refusing to be deceived by lies and falsehoods propagated by people who belong to a terrorist organization with a known record in disseminating hatred and inciting to violence ….. (6/7)
— Embassy of Egypt USA (@EgyptEmbassyUSA) August 11, 2021
The social media drama comes as the Biden administration faces increased pressure from rights groups and US legislators to curtail military aid to the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
El-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, has been accused of crackdowns on freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances.
Biden had previously said there would be “no more blank cheques” for el-Sisi, who former President Donald Trump once reportedly referred to as his “favourite dictator”, however, his administration has again earmarked $1.3bn in military aid for Egypt in its 2022 budget request.
This tweet from Egypt’s embassy in the US is deeply harmful & concerning.
Those of us who rightly inform members of Congress of Egypt’s human rights record are providing important context to push the US to abide by its own and intl law standards in setting US policy. pic.twitter.com/vFqYpZfO65
— Elisa Epstein (@elisacepstein) August 11, 2021
US Representative Tom Malinowski, a vocal critic of US aid to Egypt, quickly slammed the Egyptian’s ambassador’s message.
“Nothing conveys the entitled arrogance of Egypt’s dictatorship better than taking $1.3 billion a year in US taxpayers funds while accusing members of Congress concerned about human rights (including detention & torture of innocent Americans) of being deceived by ‘terrorists,'” he tweeted.
Elisa Epstein, an advocacy officer for Human Rights Watch, called Zahran’s tweets “deeply harmful and concerning”.
Nothing conveys the entitled arrogance of Egypt's dictatorship better than taking $1.3 billion a year in US taxpayers funds while accusing members of Congress concerned about human rights (including detention & torture of innocent Americans) of being deceived by "terrorists." pic.twitter.com/upt2ZoTItE
— Tom Malinowski (@Malinowski) August 11, 2021
“Those of us who rightly inform members of Congress of Egypt’s human rights record are providing important context to push the US to abide by its own and [international] law standards in setting US policy,” she tweeted.
While close relations were once considered a necessity to the US given Cairo’s influence in the Arab world, control over the Suez Canal – an arterial trade route connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea – and its land border with the Gaza Strip, critics have argued that this relevance has waned.
Since 2014, the US Congress has regularly passed legislation that requires Washington to certify the government in Cairo is taking steps to address rights abuses before releasing a portion of the annual aid.
The US government, meanwhile, has routinely invoked a national security waiver to bypass the requirement.
Last week, US Senator Chris Murphy called on the Biden administration to withhold about $300m in aid in the upcoming year “as required by law”, saying Egypt “has not made the progress necessary under the law on human rights and political speech”.
Citing reports that about 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt face regular mistreatment and abuse, Murphy added: “We are funding torture.”
The Biden administration has maintained it is making human rights a priority in its dealings with Cairo, with a State Department report in January condemning abuses committed under el-Sisi.
The US in March joined a United Nations Human Rights Council statement condemning the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents.
But observers say a deadly escalation between Israel and Palestine in May, in which Egypt served as a mediator, shaped the relationship in Cairo’s favour.
Then, Biden made successive calls to el-Sisi while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a last-minute visit to Cairo, praised the “strategic partnership” between the two countries.
At that time, Michele Dunne, director and a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East programme, told Al Jazeera that the timing for el-Sisi was “manna from heaven”, giving him an opportunity “to demonstrate his usefulness” to Washington.
Most recently, on Tuesday, US officials again praised Egypt as a “constructive” defence partner during a hearing in the US Senate.
Dana Stroul, deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East, testified that the Biden administration is making human rights a priority in talks with Egypt.
“But we also believe and support that Egypt has legitimate security concerns and believe that security assistance to Egypt is a critical tool in supporting those needs,” she added.
“The current view of the administration is that Egypt is playing a constructive role when it comes to border security, Libya, GERD (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), obviously the conflict in Gaza, et cetera,” she said.