The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. blocks $130 million in aid to Egypt over human rights

A woman protests against visiting Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Paris in 2020. (Michel Euler/AP)

The Biden administration will withhold $130 million in security aid from Egypt for the second consecutive year over its human rights record but will release a separate tranche of $75 million because of Cairo’s steps to free political prisoners.

The split determination on military aid to Egypt, which has been seen as a signal U.S. decision on human rights, illustrates the Biden administration’s attempt to apply continued pressure on the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi over its dismal rights record while rewarding incremental steps by a crucial Middle Eastern ally.

The decision affects only a small share of the annual $1.3 billion in military financing the United States has long provided to Egypt, whose relationship with Israel remains a cornerstone of Washington’s approach to the region. That portion of the aid is subject to evolving congressional conditions related to human rights and the rule of law.

“The purpose going forward is both to secure additional movement with respect to the very serious human rights issues that we’re talking about today and, frankly, sustained cooperation on a huge geopolitical agenda … where Egypt is playing an absolutely vital role in terms of de-escalating regional conflicts,” a senior State Department official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity under department rules, told reporters.

The decision comes a year after the State Department announced its decision to withhold $130 million in military financing if Egypt did not make improvements on specific conditions in 120 days, a goal that officials later determined Cairo had not met. This time, the administration decided to immediately redirect the $130 million without giving Egypt extra time to comply.

Officials defended their decision to go ahead and provide Egypt with a separate tranche of aid worth $75 million, which had been subject to a different, more narrow set of congressional conditions on treatment of prisoners. They said Egypt had met the requirement for “clear and consistent progress” specified under that law by releasing some 500 political prisoners at the recommendation of a recently created presidential pardons committee. They also cited Sissi’s creation of a national dialogue set up to address an array of issues, including pretrial detention practices.

The State Department’s annual human rights report catalogues far-reaching violations by the Egyptian government, including arbitrary arrest, excessive pretrial detention and torture by government jailers. Under Sissi, political and media freedoms have been restricted.

On Tuesday, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged that aid be withheld and decried what they said was the “ongoing, pervasive, and systemic violations of human rights in Egypt that risk destabilizing the country.”

But Egypt remains a valuable regional partner for the United States in many ways, battling extremists on the Sinai Peninsula and helping to broker a halt to Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2021.

Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the administration’s attempt to use its leverage with Egypt to address its human rights practices.

“But clearly President Biden could have gone farther to show that he’s truly standing with human rights defenders and pursue an Egyptian policy that matches his stated approach that human rights and democracy will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy,” Widdersheim said.

Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said the conditions cited on the tranche of $75 million included progress on political prisoners and on due process.

“Any objective observers would say Egypt has not made clear and constant progress on either of those conditions, especially the second one,” she said. “This is rewarding the Egyptian government for something that is at most a half measure.”

Diplomats say the Biden administration, which at times has struggled to reconcile its desire to demonstrate its commitment to human rights with realpolitik concerns amid mounting competition with Russia and China, will continue to push Sissi on those and related issues.

“We’ve conveyed to the Egyptian government consistently that we see the bilateral relationship with Egypt as strengthened when there is progress on human rights,” another senior State Department official said.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington could not be reached immediately for comment.