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Biden administration set to withhold $130 million from Egypt over human rights concerns

President Sissi’s government has not met conditions attached to the security assistance, U.S. officials say.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on May 26, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)
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CAIRO — The Biden administration is set to withhold $130 million in security assistance to Egypt over human rights concerns after U.S. officials determined that Cairo has not fulfilled conditions attached to the assistance, State Department officials said Friday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Egyptian counterpart on Thursday on a call that included a discussion of human rights and is expected to sign off on the decision on Sunday, the officials said. State Department officials declined to say how the money would be redirected.

A spokesperson for Egypt’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The administration has been facing a Jan. 30 deadline to decide whether to release the funds, which U.S. officials announced last year would be withheld unless Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s government met several requirements. The State Department has declined to publicly detail the specific conditions, but officials and congressional aides have said they include halting the longtime prosecution of civil society advocates involved in a legal case known as Case 173 and the release or dismissal of charges against 16 individuals.

The United States still provides Egypt with more than $1 billion in military assistance a year. But the decision over the aid, which came amid pressure from U.S. lawmakers and human rights activists, could set a new tone for the administration’s relations with Cairo.

“The message here is that Egypt can no longer take our taxpayers’ aid for granted, or assume that our leaders will always protect the relationship no matter what they do,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who co-chairs the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, in a statement. “They actually have to start heeding our concerns.”

In recent months, the Egyptian government has sought to burnish its human rights record, launching its first-ever “human rights strategy” in September, naming 2022 the “year of civil society” and ending the country’s longtime state of emergency.

But many political observers see these recent moves as cosmetic and intended to appease foreigners concerned about Sissi’s crackdown on dissent.

Several high-profile prisoners have also been released in recent weeks, including Ramy Shaath, an activist who was detained in 2019 on vague accusations he had aided a terrorist organization. Human rights groups called him a prisoner of conscience.

In custody, Shaath was confined to a cramped, shared cell, denied access to hygiene supplies and allowed only two phone calls to his wife over the course of his detention, he said in a video interview from France this week. To eventually secure his freedom, he said, he was forced to give up his Egyptian citizenship.

In a message on Friday, Shaath said selling arms to Egypt while also withholding aid sends “very mixed messages” from the United States.

Egyptian emergency court sentences three prominent prisoners to years behind bars

Shaath, a Palestinian Egyptian, said in an earlier video interview from France this week that his own release suggests that international pressure can effect change on the ground. He was freed after intense lobbying by his French wife, Celine Lebrun-Shaath, who was deported from Egypt.

Egypt’s handling of human rights “remains deeply problematic particularly on civil and political rights,” said a Western diplomat in Cairo who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “However, over the last months we have seen fewer detentions of dissidents and a shiny new Egyptian [human rights] strategy. Let’s see if this apparent shift will be sustained.”

Gamal Eid, a human rights advocate who has faced a travel ban under Case 173, which accused certain organizations of receiving illegal foreign funding, said in a phone call before Blinken’s decision was announced that in recent months “Egypt has released a very, very minor number of people who were not supposed to be in prison to begin with.”

“But other than that, I do not see that Egypt has taken any real steps,” he said.

His own organization, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, was ceasing operations earlier this month because of what he described as challenges and pressure from the Egyptian government.

In November, Hossam Bahgat, who leads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was convicted of insulting an official authority and spreading false news, and fined about $650. The next month, prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has already spent years behind bars, was sentenced to five years in prison while his former lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim were each sentenced to four. All three were found guilty of “spreading false news undermining national security.” The State Department expressed “disappointment” over their sentences, which offer no possibility of appeal.

Shaath, whose father, Nabil, is a prominent Palestinian politician, was an activist in Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and co-founded the country’s pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. He said that during his detention, he was interrogated only once, shortly after his arrest, and believes he was detained because of his activism and comments he made publicly criticizing former president Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

His release, he said, left him set on raising the cause of other Egyptians still in prison.

“I’m very determined not to leave any of the people I saw there remaining there,” Shaath said of other prisoners. “There are thousands of people. People don’t know their names and they’re not famous; they’re not activists. The number of normal people, for me, that was the most astonishing and scary part.”

Missy Ryan and John Hudson contributed from Washington.

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