DISAPPEARANCES, TORTURE and extrajudicial killings have become shockingly common under the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. According to the El Nadeem Center, a Cairo-based human rights group, there were 464 documented cases of abductions by security forces in 2015, at least 676 cases of torture, and almost 500 deaths of detainees. The abuses have largely been ignored by Egypt’s Western allies. But on Jan. 25, a 28-year-old Italian PhD. student researching trade unions, Giulio Regeni, disappeared in Cairo. His torture-scarred body was discovered dumped in a roadside ditch nine days later.
The case made headlines across Europe and prompted some long-overdue scrutiny of the Sissi regime’s appalling human rights record. On March 10, the European Parliament overwhelmingly called on governments to cease arms sales and security assistance to Egypt, saying the student’s murder “follows a long list of enforced disappearances,” as well as mass arrests and sweeping repression of free assembly and speech. “Respect for human rights,” said Cristian Dan Preda, vice chair of the Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, “should be the basis of our relations with Egypt.”
That principle also ought to govern U.S. ties with the Sissi regime, not least because its brutal repression is spawning extremism and pushing stability in Egypt out of reach. Instead, the Obama administration is moving in the opposite direction. In requesting another $1.3 billion in military aid for Cairo in next year’s budget, it has asked Congress to eliminate conditioning that has tied 15 percent of the aid to the government’s human rights record.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has spent much of his tenure claiming that Mr. Sissi is “restoring democracy,” acknowledged in congressional hearings last month that there had been a “deterioration” in freedom there. “There are disturbing arrests, there are disturbing sentences,” he said. But he went on to argue that the regime’s abuses had to be balanced against the fight against Islamist extremism. “We have to try and work and thread a needle carefully,” he said.
But how could that “balance” derive from removing all consideration of human rights from funding for Egypt’s armed forces? As it is, the administration can exercise a waiver, as it did last year, to allow full funding in the event the regime does not meet the conditions. But the language applies at least some pressure; to remove it would send a message of impunity for any and all abuses.
This would be a particularly dangerous time to offer such a free pass. According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the regime is preparing to put as many as 37 Egyptian civil society groups on trial as part of “a systematic plan to prosecute the entire independent human rights movement.” Ten leading human rights defenders have already been banned from leaving Egypt, and the assets of four have been ordered frozen. The El Nadeem Center, which documented the cases of disappearances, was served with a closure order by police last month.
We’ve argued for some time that the Sissi regime is incapable of stabilizing Egypt. Now even its former defenders in the civilian political elite are turning against it as its crimes mount and the economy flounders. For the Obama administration to hand Cairo a blank check now would be foolhardy. Congress should prevent it.