Revelations last month that the Egyptian government had secretly deployed one of its agents to spy on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's critics in the United States should not have come as too much of a surprise. After all, the Biden administration has reassured Sisi that his political standing remains secure, however heinous his government's abuses. One might have expected that Sisi and his fellow autocrats in the Middle East would think twice about transnational attacks on dissidents in the wake of the global scandal caused by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the order of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. But the lack of real, hard accountability for that brutal killing, alongside continued support from the White House, has assured Sisi, MBS and others that they can easily bear the costs.
On Jan. 6, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of Pierre Girgis, a dual Egyptian-American citizen, allegedly hired by an unidentified Egyptian government agency to gather information on dissidents in the New York City area. The Egyptian community in and around New York has swelled with political exiles since the 2013 coup in which Sisi violently overthrew the country's first and only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. More than 1,100 protesters were massacred by Egyptian security forces on the streets of Cairo following the coup, and in its longer aftermath, over 60,000 Egyptians have been jailed as political prisoners. Together with human rights activists, Egyptian political exiles form the center of resistance to the Sisi regime's unprecedented terror in Egypt, replete with executions of political enemies, widespread and systematic torture in overcrowded prisons, and near-constant surveillance and restrictions on information at a level never experienced before, even under previous autocrats like Hosni Mubarak.
Given his reliance on fear and force to sustain his rule, it's easy to see why Sisi would feel insecure enough to spy on and silence not only his critics at home, but also those abroad. In recent years, the Egyptian government has gone out of its way to target, surveil and punish exiles, subjecting their family members to travel bans and even imprisonment. Egyptian officials continue to harass and detain the family of Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen and former political prisoner in Egypt, who was released in 2015 after two years of unjust imprisonment and torture for protesting Sisi's coup. Soltan's father, Salah, a political prisoner who was also jailed after Sisi's coup, disappeared in detention in 2020. In 2015, Egyptian officials arrested journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani when he returned to Egypt; three years later, a military court sentenced him to 10 years in prison for his academic writing and research completed while abroad.
Given his reliance on fear and force to sustain his rule, it's easy to see why Sisi would feel insecure enough to spy on and silence not only his critics at home, but also those abroad.
- Sarah Leah Whitson, John Hursh and Mohammad Mahmoud
When critics do not return home, the Sisi regime is content to harass and detain parents, children and other family members in their place. Last year, the Egyptian government imprisoned two brothers of Abdullah el-Sherif, an extremely popular video blogger, while forcing his father to go on television to denounce him. More recently, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, now living in exile in Turkey, learned that Egyptian authorities had hacked his phone using both Pegasus spyware from Israel's NSO Group and Predator spyware of rival, Europe-based company Cytrox—just as Saudi authorities had infiltrated the phones of Saudi exiles to track and kill Khashoggi. This too was not a surprise, as Egypt's Minister of Immigration, Nabila Makram, made the government's intention very clear at a 2019 event in Canada: "If anyone abroad criticizes our country," she declared, "he will be cut to pieces."
What's harder to understand is why the U.S. government has tolerated these attacks and continually reassured Sisi that his status with the Biden administration is secure. Rather than keep his promise for the United States to "end the blank checks" to Egypt, Sisi remains, apparently, Biden's favorite dictator, as well as Donald Trump's. The Biden administration went out of its way last September to approve a new military aid package to Egypt of more than $1.1 billion, and reduced the amount Congress had conditioned on human rights reforms from $300 million to $130 million. The State Department then further limited the conditions on aid to the release of 16 unidentified political prisoners, while Congress's original hold on aid to Egypt included broader conditions to require civil society reforms and the implementation of laws and policies to improve Egypt's woeful human rights record. The gifts came packaged with groveling by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who flew to Cairo in May to heap "appreciation" and "praise" on Sisi and reaffirm Washington's "strategic partnership" with Egypt.
At the same time, the Biden administration—along with America's most stalwart democratic allies, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany—has signaled to authoritarians that it's still open season on political critics, wherever they may be found. The Biden administration made a calculated political decision not to target MBS with the same Global Magnitsky Act sanctions it applied against his 17 underlings, which would have formally banned the crown prince from travel to the United States and frozen his U.S. assets. The administration didn't even use its own Khashoggi Ban sanctions, which are designed to punish individuals for their attacks on dissidents, and which the State Department announced last year to great fanfare. In London, Saudi dissidents, including prominent human rights activist Yahya Assiri, complain that U.K. authorities took little notice of death threats and multiple incidents of harassment.
Tyrants like Sisi have made calculated political decisions that the risk of being caught attacking dissidents abroad will still be worth it, especially if they continue to buy Western weapons.
- Sarah Leah Whitson, John Hursh and Mohammad Mahmoud
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron went all in, jumping at the opportunity to be the first Western leader to return to Riyadh and meet MBS since Khashoggi's murder, and securing a lucrative arms deal in the process. The visit coincided with the suspicious release of one of the alleged culprits in the Khashoggi case, Khaled Aedh al-Otaibi, whom French authorities arrested pursuant to an Interpol notice when he turned up in Paris in December, but then released overnight claiming a case of mistaken identity. Yet they released no photographic evidence to prove it. The French government also inked a deal to sell Egypt 30 of its Rafale fighter jets valued at about $4.5 billion last March. Germany, too, is getting in on the action, selling Egypt about $4.87 billion worth of weapons in 2021.
In the face of such coddling, tyrants like Sisi have made their own calculated political decisions that the risk of being caught attacking dissidents abroad will still be worth it, especially if they continue to buy Western weapons. To protect people in the United States facing the long arm of Sisi's tyranny, the Biden administration should identify and punish the Egyptian officials implicated in the spying scandal in New York with Khashoggi Ban sanctions and keep them out of the country. At a minimum, it must inform those targeted by the Egyptian government and provide them with the protection they need. The same holds true for the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other democracies. Otherwise, the authoritarianism resurgent around the world will continue to seep into the United States and other countries with deadly consequences, as we reap here at home what we sow abroad by arming and defending dictators.