US withholds $130m military aid to Egypt over its rights record, Watchdog says not enough

The Biden administration has decided to withhold $130 million of foreign military aid to Egypt over its failure to fulfil human rights conditions, US officials said Wednesday.

However, Human Rights Watch said the decision does not sufficiently respond to Egypt’s ongoing repression and rights abuses.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has determined that Cairo, by releasing hundreds of jailed individuals, had made some progress on political detentions and due process, the officials said. Rights groups have pushed for withholding all of a $300 million portion of aid to Egypt placed under conditions by the US Congress.

The rights groups cited widespread human rights abuses under Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government, including torture and enforced disappearances.

The aid that Blinken has decided to withhold accounts for 10 per cent of the $1.3 billion allocated for Egypt annually. An official said State Department lawyers determined that 10 per cent was the maximum that could be withheld this year.

Last year, the administration withheld the same amount for Fiscal Year 2020, citing the Egyptian government’s failure to end the unjust detentions of or drop the charges against 16 Egyptians and completely close the decade-old Case 173 that targets civil society.

The Biden Administration is the first to adhere to the Congressionally mandated human rights conditions put on a portion of the $1.3 billion in annual US security assistance to Egypt. Previous administrations used a “national security waiver,” contending that withholding funds would damage US interests.

Washington is allowing $75 million to be released to Egypt, citing progress related to political detentions and due process, including the release of about 500 political detainees this year.

Cairo will receive another $95 million under a statutory exception related to counter-terrorism, border security and non-proliferation funding, State Department officials said.

“The approach taken here reflects the administration’s concerns about human rights and fundamental freedoms in Egypt, while also seeking to preserve the engagement and dialogue we have had over the last 20 months,” said one of the senior State Department officials, briefing reporters.

“We have … been extremely clear with the Egyptian government at every level about the actions and steps that are necessary to strengthen our relationship.”

Sisi denies there are political prisoners in Egypt. He says stability and security are paramount and authorities are promoting rights by trying to provide basic needs, such as jobs and housing.

Analysts say Western powers are reluctant to take serious action against a strategic ally that has served as a mediator in long-standing issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and which controls the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most valuable shipping lanes.

US officials say the relationship with Egypt is complex. The most populous Arab country is a vital ally and Washington is still committed to support it for its “legitimate defense needs”.

In December 2020, the US Congress conditioned $225 million in Foreign Military Financing for Fiscal Year 2021 on the Egyptian government taking several actions. They included “sustained and effective steps” to strengthen human rights, protect freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and hold security forces accountable. Separately, the appropriations legislation mandates Congress to withhold an additional $75 million if the Egyptian government does not make strides in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process. The Biden administration is releasing that $75 million for progress it says Egypt has made on the issue of political prisoners, though repression of the political opposition remains severe, Human Rights Watch said.

“Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has created a human rights crisis in Egypt, and funding held by the United States last year did not go far enough to change that,” said Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a positive sign that the United States is using its leverage to address human rights abuses, but President Biden should go further to show that he’s truly standing with human rights defenders and other victims of Egyptian repression.” 

The human rights situation in Egypt has not fundamentally improved since last year, Human Rights Watch said. Case 173 – a notorious court proceeding in which Egypt is prosecuting rights organizations over allegedly receiving foreign funds – remains open, and arbitrary detention, arrests, travel bans, targeting of independent media outlets, and harassment of civil society have continued unabated. Human Rights Watch and other local and international human rights organizations wrote to President Biden on August 8 urging him withhold the military assistance and suspend arms sales due to Egypt’s failure to improve its human rights situation.

Human Rights Watch recently documented likely extrajudicial executions of suspected militants in North Sinai, moves to curtail environmental groups’ ability to carry out independent policy and advocacy, and the imposition of arbitrary travel bans on key members of civil society. Egypt has also limited the work of civil society essential to protecting the country’s environment in the run-up to COP27 – the global conference on climate change that Egypt will host in November.

“Egyptian activists and civil society groups have been pummeled by wave after wave of arrests, travel bans, unfair trials, and other means of repression,” Widdersheim said. “The Biden administration should say enough is enough and consistently ratchet up the pressure until substantial human rights improvements are clear.”