A top Democratic lawmaker in the United States has urged pausing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, amid growing calls to slash assistance.
Congressman Gregory Meeks, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the request on Friday, saying that Egypt failed to meet the human rights criteria set by lawmakers to receive the aid.
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US lawmakers had placed human rights conditions on $320m of the $1.3bn that Cairo receives annually from Washington.
But the administration of President Joe Biden waived the conditions earlier this month on grounds that the assistance advances US national interests. It ultimately withheld only $85m.
“Today, I requested the State Department pause a portion of US military financing to Egypt that is conditioned on human rights criteria,” Meeks said in a statement, referring to the remaining $235m.
“Congress needs more clarity from the State Department on how concerns about treatment of political prisoners, journalists, as well as the rule of law are being tackled in our bilateral relationship.”
The call comes as key Democratic Senator Bob Menendez faces corruption charges over allegations that he accepted bribes to deliver political favours, including advancing the Egyptian government’s interests in Washington.
Menendez, who stepped down from his role as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the charges, has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty. But his indictment has led to renewed demands in Congress to reassess assistance to Egypt.
“It’s a devastating series of allegations, and as a committee, we now have a responsibility to understand what Egypt was doing and what Egypt thought it was getting,” Chris Murphy said earlier this week.
“There are serious implications for US policy towards Egypt if – as the indictment suggests – they were trying to use illicit means to curry favour on the committee.”
Meek’s statement on Friday did not address Menendez’s charges, but the congressman pledged to push to “ensure human rights and national security are integral pillars”.
Rights groups have accused the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which came to power in a 2013 military coup, of jailing tens of thousands of dissidents and outlawing virtually all forms of political opposition. Cairo has denied holding political prisoners.
Egypt launched a so-called “National Human Rights Strategy” in 2021 to improve its record, but rights groups have dismissed the effort. Amnesty International, for instance, called it a “shiny cover-up” for “unrelenting” abuses.
Egypt is a top US ally in the Middle East and North Africa. While Biden administration officials have offered some verbal criticism of Egypt over human rights, they often praise Cairo’s mediating efforts between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza.
As a candidate, Biden promised to prioritise human rights in his foreign policy and criticised his predecessor Donald Trump’s close ties with el-Sisi.
“No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” he wrote in a social media post in 2020, referring to the Egyptian president.