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Facing pressure on human rights, Biden administration attaches new conditions to Egypt security aid

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has faced widespread criticism over increased restrictions on the press and freedom of expression. (Michel Euler/AP)

The Biden administration will impose new conditions on security aid to Egypt, officials said Monday, a decision that sends an unusual rebuke to a key Middle Eastern ally over alleged government abuses but that drew criticism from human rights groups.

The determination, which affects a share of the $1.3 billion in military assistance the United States provides Egypt each year, offers an indication of how the Biden administration will balance human rights and national security as it seeks to repair damage to America’s reputation and refocus on domestic challenges, including political divisions and the coronavirus pandemic.

After lengthy deliberations, officials have decided to provide $170 million to Egypt for counterterrorism, border security and nonproliferation, said State Department and congressional aides familiar with the matter. The administration will provide an additional $130 million on the condition that Egypt ends protracted prosecutions against rights and civil society organizations known as Case 173, and drops charges against or releases 16 individuals the United States has identified and raised with Cairo since June, the officials said.

“If they complete the human rights criteria that we laid out for the Egyptians, they also get the $130 million,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a decision that had not been announced publicly.

Past administrations have usually cited national security concerns to exercise a waiver allowing them to disburse $300 million of the aid package that is otherwise contingent on Egypt’s meeting certain human rights standards. Under the new compromise decision, the Biden administration will not exercise the waiver for any of that portion. A U.S. official said the administration’s decision not to use the waiver and place conditions on some of the aid conveys that this is not business as usual.

Details of the new aid conditions have not been previously reported. Politico first reported the decision to withhold some assistance.

The arrangement stakes out a middle path between human rights groups that wanted to see Biden take a harder stance against Egypt and Republican lawmakers who view Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as a committed, albeit ruthless, opponent of militant Islam.

Officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken have promised to put core American values at the center of Biden’s foreign policy, after four years when President Donald Trump often dismissed reports of abuses by partner governments and expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders such as Sissi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden in contrast has promised in reference to Sissi that there will be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’ ” But the administration’s record on human rights to date, including issues related to Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, suggests that it will adopt a cautious approach, sometimes well short of what liberal Democrats would like.

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For years Sissi, who ascended to the presidency in 2014, has faced widespread criticism over increased restrictions on freedom of expression and the press and the jailing or abuse of political opponents. A new report from Human Rights Watch details what it says are secret detentions and “probable extrajudicial killings” by Egyptian security forces.

Rights groups and some former officials denounced the long-anticipated decision on security aid, finding fault with the administration’s choice to condition rather than permanently withhold some of the aid and with what they described as inadequate conditions on that tranche.

“The Biden administration has picked a side and emboldened this repressive regime,” said Brian Dooley, an official with Human Rights First. “Egyptian human rights activists will have to live with the terrible consequences.”

Charles Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Cairo, said that by failing to address other widespread abuses in Egypt, the administration was undermining its own admonitions to the country while telegraphing a troubling message to other nations.

“It’s undermining its own foreign policy agenda and giving license not only to al-Sissi but other rights abusers in the Middle East and elsewhere,” he said.

But administration officials have stressed the importance of Egypt, with its position at the intersection of Africa and the Middle East and its zeal for counterterrorism, as an American security partner. The Sissi government also played a key role in brokering a cease-fire that ended a recent round of fighting between the Israeli government and Hamas militants in Gaza.

In 2017, the Trump administration froze some security aid to Egypt but released it the following year.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the decision was “consistent with the law and our values as a country.”

But while other congressional Democrats lauded the administration for not exercising the waiver, whose use in the past critics say has telegraphed indifference to human rights, they said it did not go far enough.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the decision a “halfhearted” step.

“This was a chance to send a strong message about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, with little cost to our security, and we fell short,” he said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Egypt needed to demonstrate “vastly greater progress” in releasing political prisoners, protecting civil society and reinforcing the rule of law.

Even if Egypt fulfills the conditions the Biden administration has imposed on the new assistance, Cardin said in a statement, it “would be a modest advancement towards what Egypt needs to do to comply with U.S. law.”