With their biggest ally, President Donald Trump, leaving the White House, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are doubling down on internal crackdowns, intensifying arrests of rights activists and political dissidents. It’s a signal to the Biden administration that it faces hard bargaining and a collision course with Arab allies who have grown accustomed to unconditional support.
A release by Cairo of 600 political prisoners in November raised hopes Egypt was prepared to loosen its autocratic grip to maintain good relations with the White House. But those hopes were upended when Egypt arrested members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the last remaining rights organizations in the country, days after the organization met with Western diplomats.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has shown little willingness to build good ties with the Biden administration or with either party in Congress.
“The Saudis are belatedly realizing they have a problem and that a much more difficult time is coming,” says Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution. “The Saudi response is not, ‘How do we change our profile to accommodate Biden?’ It is more, ‘How do we hunker down in the bunker and tough it out?’”
With an incoming U.S. administration promising drastic changes to Mideast policy, putting human rights at the forefront, expectations have risen among observers and even U.S. diplomats that America’s Arab allies will adjust to prevent a clash with Washington.
Yet goodwill gestures from Saudi Arabia and Egypt have not arrived. Instead, Riyadh and Cairo are doubling down on their internal crackdowns, perhaps betting that shared security interests will prevail in any Washington assessment of its policies in the region.
With their biggest ally, President Donald Trump, leaving the White House, Cairo and Riyadh are intensifying arrests of rights activists and political dissidents. It’s a signal to the Biden administration that it faces hard bargaining and a collision course with Arab allies who have grown accustomed to unconditional support.
Egypt’s arrest of activists “is an implicit message from the regime to the international community, especially the Biden administration, that ‘we have hostages inside Egypt that you care about, therefore you have to put it in your mind that while we can release some, we can still arrest others,’” says Ahmed Mefreh, an Egyptian human rights lawyer and director of the Geneva-based Committee for Justice (CFJ), in an email interview.
With President-elect Joe Biden’s win and increased scrutiny over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, many believed the timing was right for Riyadh to use its hosting of the G-20 Summit in November as an occasion to release jailed women activists.
The gesture, which would come at no political cost for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, would help repair relations in Washington and in European capitals, where the Saudi royal has become persona non grata.
Instead, Saudi Arabia referred women activists to a terrorism court and added “communicating with foreign powers” and passing on “classified information” to the charges facing hunger-striking activist Loujain al-Hathloul.
In interviews, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Furhan said “we don’t look at international pressures on these … domestic issues of our national security.”
Likewise, there were mixed signals from Egypt, whose authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mr. Trump famously referred to as “my favorite dictator.”
A release by Cairo of 600 political prisoners in November and the subsequent hiring of a Washington lobbying firm headed by the former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, raised hopes that Egypt was prepared to loosen its autocratic grip and reinvent itself to maintain good relations with the White House.
Those hopes were upended when Egypt arrested members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the last remaining rights organizations in the country, days after the organization met with Western diplomats.
The arrests prompted secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken to express his “concern re: Egypt arrests,” on Twitter, stressing that “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”
Although the EIPR staff were released from prison weeks later amid unprecedented international pressure and Western media campaigns, the organization and its staff still face legal action, its assets frozen.
“The regime has given mixed signals since the time of the U.S. elections,” says Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the nonpartisan, Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Mideast Policy, noting that Cairo is still struggling to determine the best way to respond to Mr. Trump’s departure.
“It is possible there are internal tensions on how to handle things, and these tensions are spilling over on how to deal with” Egypt’s last remaining outlets for dissent, he says. “Testing the resolve of the incoming administration was a bad start.”
Human rights observers say Cairo is likely intensifying its jailing of civil society activists to hold additional bargaining chips in its negotiations with the incoming Biden administration.
By holding prominent activists whom the international community relies on, Cairo can offer to release them when faced with pressure from the West, and avoid making legal and policy reform that would open up civil society and political life, observers say.
Saudis hunkering down
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has shown little willingness to build good ties with the Biden administration or with either party in Congress now that their protector is leaving office.
“The Saudis are belatedly realizing they have a problem and that a much more difficult time is coming,” says Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Riyadh had bet heavily that Mr. Trump could still pull off an electoral win.
“The Saudi response is not, ‘How do we change our profile to accommodate Biden?’ It is more, ‘How do we hunker down in the bunker and tough it out?’”
Saudi Arabia’s refusal to accommodate President-elect Biden, who has vowed to treat it as a “pariah,” stems from a belief that the rift between mainstream players and institutions in Washington and Riyadh runs so deep, a change in human rights policy will not improve relations.
“This is due to the fact that the real problem between the U.S. and Saudi is not a policy difference – although there are policy differences,” says Mr. Riedel. “The real problem is the crown prince. He knows that, and there is very little room for a solution to this fundamental problem.”
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the brash targeting of rivals within Saudi and abroad, and a war in Yemen that has become the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world have cost the crown prince on both sides of the aisle.
Also harming ties is Riyadh’s apparent intent to rush through a prosecution of detained former crown prince and interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef, a rival to MBS and counterterrorism czar who was a key ally in America’s fight against Al Qaeda.
Prince Muhammad is held in high regard by U.S. intelligence, national security communities, and Congress. Washington is concerned over the deteriorating health of the prince, who had worked closely with then-Vice President Biden during the Obama administration.
In what may be a preview of more hostile Saudi rhetoric toward a Biden White House, pro-Saudi Twitter bots continue to accuse Prince Muhammad of a plot backed by Democrats and the “deep state” to overthrow the ruling family.
Pressure from Biden?
The question remains how far the Biden administration is willing to push leaders in both countries.
By intensifying their crackdowns, the Egyptian and Saudi governments are hedging their bets that Mr. Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, will be reluctant to push too far on human rights, particularly at a time the U.S. faces crises at home and is attempting to rebuild alliances and multilateralism abroad.
“The rhetoric of the Biden administration-elect is certainly far more emphatic about human rights than the Trump administration,” H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says via email. “But that doesn’t mean policies from the administration are going to be all that different, or that much more difficult for Cairo and Riyadh to maneuver around.”
Historically, human rights have barely factored into joint relationships built around a nexus of shared interests of regional stability, security, counter-terrorism, trade, and arms sales.
“Egypt presumes that fact that U.S. assistance is unaffected by the rights issue reflects that it is not a priority for the U.S.,” says Mr. Kaldas at the Tahrir Institute. “They think it is an image problem rather than a policy problem, because American behavior enforces that conclusion.”
The crackdowns are also fueled by an overestimation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia of their strategic importance to America in 2021, analysts say. Alliances hailed by the two countries were cemented during the Cold War when access to oil, Israel’s security, and countering Soviet influence were the priorities of American Mideast policy – most of which are now secure or moot.
Observers and diplomats say the Biden administration maintains leverage, such as the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and spare parts and expertise required to maintain the American-made Saudi defense systems and air force.
While Egypt is more open to discuss the human rights file as part of wider negotiations over its relationship with the U.S., for Saudi Arabia it remains a “closed subject,” Gulf insiders say.
Says a Gulf source of Riyadh’s thinking: “Administrations come and go, but a royal family stays; America will turn around first.”