The US administration of new President Joe Biden has sent early negative signals to Egypt indicating that after the long honeymoon with the Trump administration, Cairo must prepare for a tough period during which the file of freedoms, human rights and democratic progress will be on top of the priorities in the relations between the two countries.
The Biden administration did not waste time rolling back some of the decisions of the former President Donald Trump. The US Department of Justice announced, on Saturday, the suspension of the immunity previoulsy extended to former Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawy, in a torture lawsuit filed against him by Egyptian-American Human rights activist Muhammad Sultan, described by Cairo as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The US State Department had declared in July 2020 that Beblawi now serving on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund should be immune from a federal lawsuit brought by Sultan to hold him liable for torture.
Political analysts said the choice of the case and the timing carry deep political implications for Cairo, which used to enjoy a free hand dealing with Brotherhood and human rights related issues. Such cases used to be considered as criminal cases by security services and did not spark major disagreement during Trump’s term in office.
They point out that the Egyptian file was put on the front-burner in Washington just two days before the tenth anniversary of the January 25 revolution that toppled the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The move indicated that the forthcoming period may witness tensions between the two countries.
The shift also contradicted the belief by some political circles that Biden is too burdened with pending domestic issues to focus in detail on foreign human rights concerns.
The New York Times, which is seen as well connected to Democratic Party circles, published a report last week about the death of four coronavirus patients in the intensive care room at the El Husseineya hospital, north of Cairo. The newspaper defended a version of the incident according to which the deaths were caused by an oxygen shortage. The government had denied this version of the facts and attributed the deaths to the deteriorating health conditions of the patients.
Egyptian political sources interpreted the newspaper’s particular interest in an incident, which occurred in a remote area of Egypt but was not an unusual occurrence in the fight against the pandemic even in developed nations, as a discomforting start. It showed that from now on, Egypt will be in the US spotlight even after ordinary incidents.
Some analysts said that the selective and emotion-laden treatment of the issue carried political significance. They believe it has shown the United States to be again paying attention to details in Egypt. From that perspective, they say, the death of four people as a result of a suspected medical error quickly turned turned into a major issue.
Observers say Cairo does not want a clash with Washington and is working to reduce the potential for controversial issues. It has recently sent positive signals on human rights, most notably the issuance of the executive regulations for the implementation of the law on NGOs that have been on hold for three years. It has also widened the possibilities of release of political activists.
Cairo University political science professor Nourhan al-Sheikh said the Biden administration has an interest in global human rights issues that is not limited to Egypt.
Sheikh called on Egyptian authorities to well-manage the human rights file, saying, “Washington is concerned with the human rights situation only to the extent that it allows it to achieve its political goals. Cairo must deal with the core issues and conduct a strategic dialogue with the Biden administration to formulate common understandings that outline what is acceptable and what is not. There are demands and there are interests. It is important to find common denominators around them to avoid disagreements. ”
Political sources said Cairo is keen on narrowing the gap with the new Democratic administration. They believe Egypt will be inclined to build on areas of understanding with Washington if the “US avoids interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs and refrains from repeating the policies of former President Barack Obama in support of the Brotherhood or inflating the importance of the human rights file at the expense of vital common concerns.”
However, the decision to suspend Beblawy’s immunity came to reinforce the impression that the relationship between the two countries is on the verge of entering a period of political turbulence. Washington justified its position by asserting that “the issue needs time for review and scrutiny”. So the case will be reconsidered on February 21.
This issue means that reviews in other more important issues are also likely. Such reviews may even extend to military and economic aid agreements. According to experts, this approach was a tool that former US President Barack Obama used and in which he did not hesitate to link past agreements to the issue of freedoms.
Cairo had arrested Muhammad Sultan, the son of one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, in August 2013 in conjunction with a case known as the “Rabaa operations room”, which was running the high-profile Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo.
He was sentenced to 25 years in jail on charges of participating in an armed sit-in. He was released in 2015 after relentless US pressures on Cairo. He later renounced his Egyptian nationality and left for the United States.
Last June, Sultan filed a lawsuit with a US court against Hazem al-Beblawy, accusing him and other officials of “torture” during his arrest in Egypt. The allegation was denied by the Egyptian government, which asked the US State Department to intervene in the case, and urged the intervention of President Donald Trump so as to spare the relations between the two countries any fallout from the issue.
Beblawy is on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund since November 2014, and he enjoys diplomatic immunity by virtue of this position as well as well as his past government post. After suspension of his immunity, the Sultan case is likely to return to the limelight. This means embarrassment for Cairo considering the symbolic value of the position that Beblawy occupied in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood has reportedly interpreted the US message on the Beblawy case as an indication that its’ betting on Biden would not be all for naught. Since the announcement of Biden’s victory, the Brotherhood has seen as eager to reap political gains and continue pressuring Cairo.
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