With the victory of US President John Biden in the latest US presidential election, a number of the Egyptian regime’s opponents felt relieved, hoping that Biden’s success would revive the Egyptian opposition again, while others questioned the possibility of occurrence of a change in the Egyptian scene even after Biden’s victory.
This paper reviews the features and dimensions of the Egyptian opposition’s relationship with Washington during the last period, and explores the future of this relationship in light of the new US administration.
Egyptian opposition at home
It can be said that currently there is no opposition at home, in the political sense of the word, after the regime muzzled the overwhelming majority of its opponents at home and arrested or killed those who attempted to challenge the enforced silence imposed on Egyptians.
Perhaps, only human rights organizations that have Western support have a slight margin of freedom to criticize the regime despite the risks that such action may include, as has recently happened with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which reveals the extent of the regime’s dismay at any communication between critics of its policies and Western officials.
Egyptian opposition abroad
There are many Egyptian opposition figures abroad from across the political spectrum, but the overwhelming majority of them have turned into mere activists on social networking sites, without participating in real political action that serves their cause.
Even the political and revolutionary entities that have been established abroad since the 3 July military coup (2013) have been content with only issuance of statements or commenting on the incidents that take place in Egypt, and nothing more.
With regard to Egyptian opposition entities abroad, the author has managed to list more than 15 opposition entities or initiatives that represent action groups, as well as entities that represent Egyptian gatherings in Europe and the United States, including:
1- The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party
2- The Muslim Brotherhood’s General Office
3- The Egyptian Parliament abroad
4- The Islamic Community
5- The Brussels Declaration group
6- The Cairo Declaration group
7- The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy
8- The Egyptian Revolutionary Council
9- The National Front
10- National Action Group
11- The Civil Democratic Movement
12- The ‘Homeland for All’ initiative
13- The ‘We Can’ Movement
14- The Parallel Government group
15- The Ummah (nation) Current
16- Al-Ghad Party
All these opposition entities abroad have not succeeded in uniting their ranks or adopting a project for the Egyptian cause, and they have also failed to provide a second generation that could complete their path.
Moreover, all these entities have not succeeded in drawing the attention of the US administration to communicate or converse with them about the situation in Egypt over the past years; where their movements remained within the backyard of American policy makers, which makes the matter more difficult in light of the major internal issues that the new US administration will be preoccupied with issues like as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic situation.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) welcomed Biden’s victory in an official statement, and called on the new US president to “review the policies of supporting and backing dictatorships, and the crimes and violations committed by despotic regimes around the world against peoples”; however, no change is expected in the White House’s position on the Brotherhood as a religious group or as a key Egyptian opposition force.
The Sisi regime’s policy of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood has almost undermined the effectiveness of the MB organization. Nevertheless, the MB has not drifted into acts of violence or terrorism, which is considered by some to be a case of security success for the regime, in addition to the organization’s own fear of the scarecrow of being classified as a terrorist organization.
All this has affected the MB effectiveness and influence on the Egyptian scene, in light of the continued security strikes against the organization, most recently the arrest of the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Dr. Mahmoud Ezzat.
Consequently, the US administration is unlikely to re-evaluate its attitude towards the Brotherhood or communicate with the organization, as a major Egyptian opposition force, especially after the MB experience in power, where President Morsi, during the Obama administration, sought establishment of equal-footing Egyptian-American relations, which is unacceptable to Washington.
Egyptian opposition’s communications with US administration
Throughout the past years, specifically since 2013, the Egyptian opposition has been away from any official communication with successive US administrations. However, the meetings held by some opposition figures in Washington were only within the framework of visits to members of the US Congress, ambassadors, research centers, or human rights organizations, without any real approach to holding effective communication with US decision-makers, despite the strong popular mobilization in Egyptian street throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, in addition to relatively acceptable coordination between various components of opposition forces, noting that this was under Obama’s administration and his VP John Biden, the current US president.
This is due to several reasons, including:
1- Washington’s unwillingness to displease Cairo and jeopardize the strategic interests between the two parties by uncalculated meetings with the opposition. Moreover, some American officials expressed satisfaction with the overthrow of the first democratically elected Egyptian president, such as John Kerry, the Secretary of State in the Obama administration, who commented on the coup undertaken by the Egyptian army on 3 July 2013, by saying, “The Egyptian army “restored democracy” when they removed Morsi. In addition, the Democratic majority Congress at the time refused to define what happened on 3 July 2013 as a military coup and accordingly rejected suspension of US military aid to the post-coup regime.
2- Despite the popular mobilization momentum and the vitality of the opposition in the early years following July 3, 2013, the anti-coup political forces had no clear vision for change, and their movement was indiscriminate within the framework of reactions, not actions.
3- The opposition’s lack of experience in dealing with foreign governments and regimes.
Biden’s attitude towards democracy and Egyptian opposition
In order to explore US President John Baden’s attitude towards the Egyptian opposition, it is important to review his positions towards the democratic situation in Egypt, especially when he was the US Vice President during the Obama administration for 8 years:
1- During the January 2011 revolution, Joe Biden refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator, and was against the idea of him stepping down from power, as he believed that change would take place gradually.
2- The military coup, the Rabaa massacre and other massacres occurred during the era of Joe Biden, when he was Vice President from 2009 to 2017.
3- Perhaps the most famous comment of John Biden on the Egyptian issue was what his tweet last June, reading, “Mohamed Amashah is finally home after 486 days in Egyptian prison for holding a protest sign. Arresting, torturing, and exiling activists like Sarah Hegazy and Mohamed Soltan or threatening their families is unacceptable. No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’.”
However, explanations abounded about the significance of this comment, and some considered it part of Biden’s election campaign to win the votes of Arabs and Muslims, as Sisi enjoys widespread hatred not only in Egypt but also in the Arab and Muslim world; while others considered that Biden’s comment came within the framework of the human rights file only, which is certainly part of the election campaign as well.
Biden’s attitude towards the situation of democracy in Egypt as well as Egyptian opponents confirms that the American strategy will limit communication with the Egyptian opposition to the human rights file, away from the political file.
Opposition’s communication with US: opportunities and challenges
Any challenge to the Egyptian regime’s stability may be considered an opportunity for the opposition to move forward. However, with the stability of the political situation of the regime, as well as the freezing of any revolutionary movement for several years, the opposition has lost any pressure cards that may be used in favor of its cause. Therefore, there is no justification for expecting the US to seek communication with the opposition or practice pressure on the Egyptian regime with respect to political change.
Also, any dialogue between two parties requires achievement of gains for both sides. Therefore, the question is: what can the Egyptian opposition offer to Biden in return for communicating with them about the situation of democracy in Egypt, or abandoning Sisi in their favor?
In fact, Sisi is currently playing a vital role in favor of Israel, whether in security coordination, or in controlling the borders with the Gaza Strip, or even in the armed operations against militants in the Sinai. Can the opposition present itself as an alternative to Sisi and playing such a role in strangling the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian resistance? Absolutely not.
Can Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh accept abandoning Sisi without using their influence in Washington, in coordination with the Israeli lobby, to prevent any US communication with the Egyptian opposition that may challenge, even formally, the stability of the military regime in Egypt? Absolutely not.
The only element that can be threatening to the regime’s stability, and worrying to the regime’s supporters, is the crumbling economic situation that is difficult for Washington or the Gulf countries to rescue, given the pressures of the economic crisis on everyone now.
It is noteworthy that the total state budget deficit in the current FY2020-2021 is about EGP432 billion (about 27.5 billion US dollars). The external debt reached “$123.5 billion by the end of June 2020, compared to $43.2 billion at the end of June 2013, up by $80.3 billion over seven years, with a growth rate of 186%, and with an annual average increase in external debt of $11.5 billion during the past seven fiscal years”.
If this deteriorating economic situation leads to a state of anger in the Egyptian street, and the regime starts to lose its control over the situation, only then the decision-making circles in Washington and the West may feel anxious and begin to search for alternatives to the regime, whether from inside or outside it. In light of the expected liquidity at such time, a smart, united and strong opposition can conduct a negotiating dialogue with the West that does not compromise on the nation’s interests and principles.
However, this requires that the Egyptian opposition must start to rebuild itself again. The stronger the opposition becomes, the more powerful its ability to negotiate will be for achievement of greater gains for the country.
Findings and recommendations
1- The Egyptian opposition currently does not have any pressure cards that would enable it to be an effective player inside or outside Egypt.
2- Due to its failure, the opposition lost many of its allies, such as Qatar and Turkey, where their partnership turned from a political partnership to just a humanitarian file related to settling their legal and living conditions in places of their residence.
3- The US administration will be preoccupied with its internal problems, especially the economic crisis and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic; and externally, with its battle with China and Russia and restoration of relations with the European Union, as a top priority; while its concern for the Middle East will remain in a secondary position.
4- The only possible breakthrough for the opposition in its relationship with the US administration under Biden will be in the human rights file, albeit selective and formal, rather than systematic and humanitarian.
5- It is difficult for the opposition to draw the attention of Biden and his team, as they only respect the powerful and take action only to protect their interests.
6- The US administration will remain biased towards the current Egyptian regime due to their strategic relations. However, the US administration has been keen to criticize the Egyptian regime in public with respect to the human rights file to give an ethical character to its actions.
7- The history of the Democrats’ leadership of the White House confirms their support for the Egyptian dictatorship to protect their interests, with reservations only on human rights files, albeit with selective approach that is biased in favor of non-Islamists.
8- Only a strong organized opposition that has a clear political project and can rally the masses behind it may push Washington to seek understandings with it.
8- A real success in any communication between the Egyptian opposition and US decision-makers will remain around reaching an equation where the Egyptian opposition does not compromise its principles and the nation’s higher interests and at the same time assure the Americans that their interests in the region are not threatened.
9- The opposition should focus on the only possible margin of movement with the US administration. The more the opposition succeeds in achieving successes in this file, the more it is able to build a network of relationships that allow it to achieve further progress.
In fact, the human rights file is an opportunity for both parties, given that it is a non-politicized file and that the opposition is supported by many international human rights organizations with respect to the human rights issue. In addition, the human rights file is the democrats’ favorite issue that does not affect their higher interests with Egypt and at the same demonstrate the humanitarian and moral character that they are keen on. Thus, if the opposition focuses on this file in the coming period, it can achieve real successes for the Egyptian people, the opposition, and the Americans themselves.
Of course, this does not mean ignoring the issue of political change or democracy, but such issues require a strong opposition that can rally people behind it. In addition, the issue of political change is not likely to come up for discussion unless there is a real threat to the survival of the regime amid a strong and united opposition that can rally masses behind it. Otherwise, the human rights issue will remain the only file available under the current circumstances.