When Joe Biden said Wednesday night that “democracy works,” he met many Democrats around the world, not just the Americans who voted him into office. But just as the progressives inside and outside the United States were delighted and relieved that their trust in democracy was confirmed, the opponents of democracy nervously watched the US presidential election, betting on a victory for Donald Trump that they did not get.
An example of this is authoritarian rulers who threaten democracy, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia – and it is easy to see why Biden’s victory terrified the leaders of both countries. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pursued undemocratic policies and monitored human rights violations, regardless of whether Trump was in office or not, but his presidency allowed them to do this with more confidence and confidence with ease. They knew that no matter how far they went in suppressing their citizens, they would not face any serious moral challenge from Washington.
During Trump’s four years as president, democracy and human rights advocates were remarkably lonely and overwhelmed in an international arena that suddenly looked very different from what it was before 2016. For example, in the summer of 2018, when Canada’s foreign minister called for the release of two political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh overreacted, evicted the Canadian ambassador, suspended flights to and from Toronto, pulled thousands of Saudi students from Canadian schools and universities, and froze future trade and investment with the North American country. More shocking than the Saudi storm of punitive measures against Ottawa was Washington’s reluctance to come to the aid of its neighbor and longtime partner.
But Riyadh’s biggest award from Trump came a few months later, when the former got away with the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. He was dismembered with a bone saw in his own country’s Turkish consulate, the world was shocked, and the CIA concluded that his assassination attempt was ordered by the Saudi Crown Prince.
Despite the overwhelming evidence from his own intelligence agencies, Trump could muster no more than subtle and indirect criticism, from which he quickly withdrew. He then reiterated that Saudi Arabia “has been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner to Saudi Arabia to safeguard the interests of our country, Israel, and all other partners in the region. It is our ultimate goal to completely eliminate the threat of terrorism worldwide! “
Another close ally of Trump is the Egyptian Sisi, whom the outgoing president bluntly called “my favorite dictator” at the G7 summit in France in 2019. Sisi had already cracked down on opponents and activists in the White House. The estimated number of political prisoners in the country is currently at least 60,000.
Disappearances are so common that it has normalized. The prisons are overcrowded and there are numerous reports of torture in Egyptian prisons. While this practice was well underway before Trump was elected in 2016, its persistence has continued with lingering gravity since Sisi took power in 2014 and is rare and worse than ever in the last few decades – even under Hosni Mubarak.
The regime was largely politically isolated internationally, especially after Sisi, the then Egyptian military chief, oversaw the removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in 2013. At the time, Obama was in the White House responding to his questions. The government saw Egypt as an undemocratic move by imposing a partially temporary cut in US aid to Egypt.
Aid was eventually restored in 2015, but bilateral relations remained tense after Obama sent a clear message that he was uncomfortable with being perceived as friendly to autocratic rulers. At the time, critics saw his reaction as pointless, but the world has now realized its importance compared to Trump’s policies and attitudes towards Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman and like-minded politicians from Brazil to Hungary to Belarus, where Aleksandr Lukashenko – Another besieged leader who refuses to step down – Trump reiterated a few days ago, saying the US elections are fraudulent.
But it’s not just about foreign policy. Today’s concern among non-democratic rulers is not just about the specific differences they expect between Trump’s and Biden’s policies. Dictators also fear reinforcing the strong idea that “democracy works”. The Egyptians who rejoice today are happy about Trump’s indecency, but are also inspired by the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy.
Regardless of how hard Trump tried to use the powers conferred on him by the U.S. Constitution to change the system in his favor (e.g., to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court), the system gave up to the American people still have the option of electing him from office. That doesn’t happen in Sisi’s Egypt; When Sami Anan announced his intention to run for president against Sisi in 2018, Sisi put him in jail – and the matter was closed.
The Egyptian people did not give up. A year later they marched in rare protests against Sisi’s rule, despite fully realizing the risk they were taking under a president who rounded up masses of protesters and locked them up until they were forgotten. Then they were arrested and the protests were suppressed.
Biden’s choice gives hope. This is about America, but it’s more than just America. If Biden really sees the United States as a “beacon for the globe” and many Americans and non-Americans want to believe him, then he should break Trump’s policy towards autocratic rulers, including Sisi and Mohammed bin Salman.
This is not a call for an interventionist US foreign policy. The United States is already intervening in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the basis of generous military aid, arms sales, and other levers that have more or less existed under subsequent US administrations for decades. These are realities on the ground, and they can and have been used as bargaining chips.
Nor is this a call to Biden to order his colleagues around in a manner or in a tone that could rightly arouse criticism and legitimate accusations of US neo-imperialism, end longstanding relationships, or deny the significance of the Egyptian state’s war against Islamic nationals in the northern Sinai region. Rather, it is a call to Biden to remain true to democracy and the democratic values that his choice symbolizes. For example, the release of political prisoners in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is an achievable move that Biden should pursue.
It is important to prove, more than ever, that democracy matters at home and abroad, as there have been fears that those values are at stake under Trump. When he’s gone, it’s time to champion them again.