On Monday the 24th of May, U.S. President Joe Biden called Egypt’s President Abdelfattah El-Sisi to express gratitude for his “successful diplomacy and coordination with the United States” on strengthening the Gaza ceasefire that ended 11 days of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian faction Hamas. Egypt played a key role in reaching the truce between Israel and Hamas by manoeuvring between Tel Aviv and the occupied Palestinian territories while supervising the deal’s implementation. The phone conversation evolved right as the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to the MENA region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian representatives and visit Cairo and Amman.
According to a White House statement, “the two leaders consulted on the urgent need to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need in Gaza and to support rebuilding efforts in a manner that benefits the people there and not Hamas.” The president also “underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights in Egypt,” the statement says.
The U.S.’s course on “de-prioritization” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became an important issue in the Biden’s presidential campaign. “The current conflict has brought up uncomfortable questions and policy dilemmas that the Biden administration doesn’t want to deal with,” said Michele Dunne, director and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program.
Above all, downsizing the U.S. presence in the Middle East concerns Biden’s relationship with Egypt’s President El-Sisi, who is known for a long list of abuses against human rights activists, journalists, and political opposition which come in forms of tortures, killings, imprisonment, and forced disappearances. The State Department denounces human rights violations, but Antony Blinken latest trip to Cairo last week stood in contrast to the new Biden administration’s “human rights centred” approach to Egypt.
“[Antony] Blinken did not meet with a single civil society representative during his stop in Cairo,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Whiton went on to say, “He said no more about human rights than [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and the Trump administration before him.”
While the ground is burning in Gaza and the U.S. abandons its ambitious strategy to establish peace between Israel and Palestine, Egypt has seized the moment to refocus foreign attention to its immense success in the negotiations. “For El-Sisi, the timing of the Gaza mediation has been “manna from heaven,” Dunne told Al Jazeera. She noted that “it allowed El-Sisi to demonstrate his usefulness.”
On Monday the 10th of May, the world saw a new outbreak of violence after more Palestinian families became displaced in the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Over the course of the following 11 days approximately 250 Palestinians, including many children, were killed. Twelve Israeli people, including 2 children, were killed by the Hamas rockets. The severe casualties, destroyed infrastructure, and heightened hatred have impacted the U.S. aid provision plans as well as their focus on the “hands-off” approach to the conflict.
While the U.S. supports Israel’s right to defend itself, it has also been negotiating better conditions for Palestinians who suffer from the Israeli bombardments in Gaza. Nevertheless, the unconditional military assistance to Israel amounts to $3.8 billion annually which cannot be compared to the humanitarian aid to Palestine the U.S. delivers.
The assistance does not only come from the U.S; Egypt recently promised to allocate $500 million to help with reconstruction in Palestine. Surprisingly, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, marking importance of the U.S.- Egypt relationship. Interestingly, meeting human rights standards has not always been the major condition for the funds’ release. The State Department refused to reconsider its conditions for aid provision and approved $197 million in military aid in February despite the special advocacy from the human rights activists.
Contrary to the Biden administration’s claims to withdraw from the Middle East, the recent call to Cairo discloses the importance of the U.S. involvement in the Gaza ceasefire as well as its deep ties with Egypt. One of the key challenges that Biden faces will involve his ability to adopt a reasonable practice for aid provision that does not favor human rights abuses. Hopefully, more advocacy from the civil society and attention to the human rights reports will not be overlooked but given a high priority in the decision-making.
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