What after Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’?

Some observers say the U.S. president’s ‘democracy’ gathering is another failed move to restore America’s global image

How Should the Biden Administration Support Human Rights and Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa?

In fact, the Biden administration has shown that the support for human rights and democracy around the world is a prominent rhetorical focus of its foreign policy.

Soon after taking office, President Joseph R. Biden pledged to center U.S. foreign policy “on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights” and to pursue “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Following up on these presidential commitments, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised that the Biden-Harris administration will “prioritize” human rights in U.S. foreign policy and “stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.” Other senior administration officials have echoed these themes.

The U.S. President Joe Biden has hosted the Summit for Democracy, an ambitious virtual meeting, on Dec. 9-10. The summit, to which 110 nations were invited, had already faced criticism over the choice of participants.

However, the summit was widely viewed as an extension of Washington’s claim to global leadership. Biden, who claims that “America is back,” attached a lot of importance to that event. In an essay for the Foreign Affairs magazine, he pledged, prior to his election, to promote the issue of strengthening democracy at the global level. Biden thus promised to host a summit to bring together “the nations of the free world.”

However, amid Biden administration’s emphasis on rights and democracy what should this mean for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), home to so many authoritarian regimes, including U.S. “partners” notorious for their human rights abuses, and to several countries mired in violent conflict?

In fact, the so-called summit for democracy rests firmly on geopolitical calculations – at the expense of values. The summit’s chief geopolitical purpose was to form a global coalition of democratic states against the rise of China and Russia’s expansion. Yet the idea of democracies opposing authoritarian regimes is doomed to fail. The U.S. lacks the capacity to engage in the promotion of democracy globally and great power competition makes such polarization impossible.

The world is full of contradictions. For example, Vietnam, which positions itself opposite China, is a U.S. ally that happens to be authoritarian – just like China itself. Likewise, European democracies have no interest in jeopardizing their natural gas interests (like the Nord Stream 2) for the purpose of containing Russia.

What about Egypt?

“Improving Egypt’s human rights record is a steep climb,” says Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, adding:

“The security apparatus has effectively nationalized the public domain in the name of “countering terrorism.” It controls elections and other political processes, distributes economic opportunities to cronies, and shuts down channels of participation in public affairs. It censors print and audio-visual media outlets and polices digital freedoms by blocking access to more than 500 websites in a witch-hunt against free expression online. None of this repression has made Egypt more stable. To the contrary, crises have been piling up—most recently, an escalating water dispute with Ethiopia over its filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will curtail Egyptians’ share of Nile water.”

Lotfy says that “In such a context, when parliament is subservient to the government and the judiciary is unable or unwilling to hold officials accountable for grave human rights violations, civil society—in its broadest sense—represents the last bastion of resistance to state repression and the only hope for a reversal of the authoritarian slide.

The solutions to Egypt’s pressing challenges are pluralism, democracy, and the right to participate in public affairs, all of which require free minds and free speech.

Human rights defenders and organizations, members of political parties and groups, journalists, media professionals, lawyers, scholars, intellectuals, artists, community leaders, trade union and syndicate leaders, and entrepreneurs are all catalysts for progress on political, social, economic, and human rights issues.

Egypt’s most powerful figures, those who have benefited from the authoritarian slide, know this well. And that is why those civil society actors who champion progress constantly face government attacks, judicial harassment, and media smear campaigns.

Many have been subjected to torture and other ill treatment, enforced disappearance, inhumane prison conditions and medical negligence, lengthy pre-trial detention, and unfair trials resulting in harsh sentences.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s “blank check” policy toward Egypt’s regime made this situation worse. As a first step toward changing course in Egypt, the Biden administration can contribute to human rights and democratic progress by closely monitoring attacks against civil society and by helping to relieve civil society actors from such attacks.

The new administration also should bolster its efforts to press for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders, activists, members of political groups, media professionals, lawyers, and intellectuals.

Such releases would not only bring relief to political prisoners and their families, they would also signal to Egyptian civil society that the tide is about to turn and that participation in public affairs will once again be possible.