The United States will withhold $130m in security assistance to Egypt this year, releasing the funds only if the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ends the prosecution of rights and civil society organisations.
Washington also demanded the release of 16 American prisoners in return for the aid, US media reported on Monday.
The decision by the US State Department is an apparent compromise amid calls from Democratic legislators and rights observers for the administration of President Joe Biden to make good on its promise to have a human rights-leading foreign policy, and to curtail a portion of the $1.3bn in security aid the US annually provides to Egypt, a country it considers a key ally in the Middle East and North Africa.
While rights groups have called for a complete funding overhaul, Congress has annually passed legislation placing human rights restrictions on $300m of the annual aid, requiring the State Department in recent years to seek a waiver, usually citing national security, to justify releasing the funds.
The Politico new site first reported on the administration’s plan late on Monday with The Washington Post later reporting details of the conditions. Both news organisations cited unnamed US officials.
“This is a mistake. Egypt has 60,000 political prisoners. They torture political dissidents,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who led the pressure campaign to withhold the entire sum targeted by Congress, wrote on Twitter.
“The administration should have held back the full $300m. This half measure sends a muddled message about our commitment to human rights and democracy.”
This is a mistake. Egypt has 60,000 political prisoners. They torture political dissidents.
The Administration should have held back the full $300m. This half measure sends a muddled message about our commitment to human rights and democracy. https://t.co/MqpnsGfRKz
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) September 14, 2021
Speaking to The Washington Post, a US official defended the decision, saying it indicates a break in the previous US policy and sends a message to Cairo. State Department and congressional sources told the newspaper the other $170m of aid designated for restriction by Congress would go towards “counterterrorism”, border security, and to combat arms proliferation.
The Biden administration has not yet officially responded to the news reports.
‘No more blank cheques’
Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Washington, DC-based Project on Middle East Democracy, noted the Biden administration’s decision fell short of even actions taken by the former administration of President Donald Trump in 2017 to condition $195m in aid to Egypt.
“When put in the same position four years ago, the Trump administration was stronger on human rights in Egypt,” Binder tweeted, noting the move was spurred by the crackdown on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the country.
The Trump administration later released the funds saying Egypt “has taken steps over the last year in response to specific US concerns”. The administration did not withhold further funds during Trump’s four years in office, with Trump once infamously referring to el-Sisi as his “favourite dictator”.
Signalling a break from his predecessor, Biden previously declared “no more blank cheques” for el-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi.
International observers – including the US State Department – have repeatedly accused el-Sisi of crackdowns on freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances.
The government has also been accused of using the controversial “Case 173” judicial process to regularly crack down on NGOs accused of receiving foreign funds to destabilise the government.
Still, the Egyptian leader found an early opportunity to prove himself useful to the Biden administration, serving as mediator during a deadly escalation between Israel and Palestine in May.
Biden administration officials have since praised the “strategic” and “constructive” partnership with Egypt, once considered the cornerstone of US policy in the region given its influence in the Arab world, its land border with the Gaza Strip, and its control of the Suez Canal.
A meeting on Monday between el-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at Sharm El-Sheikh – the first public meeting between the leaders of the neighbouring countries in more than 10 years – has been seen as a further coup for US-Egypt relations.
‘Bait and switch’
In conditioning only a portion of the US aid, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), accused the Biden administration of dodging a more substantial relationship reset.
“Partially ‘conditioning’ military aid to #Egypt is a failed strategy, going on decades now,” she wrote on Twitter. “Successive administrations always find a way to bait and switch, while avoiding a fundamental challenge as to why we give one cent of aid to this brutal government.”
Critics have also said the reported conditions on the $130m are not wide-ranging enough.
In a statement, DAWN programme director John Hursh accused the Biden administration of offering cover to el-Sisi, likening the decision to the US ending support for Saudi Arabia’s “offensive operations” in Yemen, a distinction the Biden administration has yet to clearly define.
“Just like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Sisi has all the reassurance he needs that not much is going to change from this new administration,” said Hursh.
Partially “conditioning” military aid to #Egypt is a failed strategy, going on decades now. Successive administrations always find a way to bait and switch, while avoiding a fundamental challenge as to why we give one cent of aid to this brutal government https://t.co/7TsfezgeRu
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) September 14, 2021