Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, was in Cairo Wednesday to meet with senior officials as Egypt expressed disapproval of a decision to withhold and withdraw millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the country over human rights concerns.
Kushner is on a trip to the Middle East to determine whether there is a way to get Israelis and Palestinians to return to peace negotiations. There have been no formal talks since a previous measure brokered by former Secretary of State John F. Kerry collapsed in 2014.
As Kushner was arriving in Cairo, the foreign ministry issued a sharp statement of its displeasure over a decision to cut or delay more than $290 million in expected U.S. aid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson notified Egypt Tuesday that the United States is pulling back $95.7 million in military and economic aid, and would only release $195 million in additional military aid after Egypt makes progress in its human rights record.
“Egypt sees this measure as reflecting poor judgment of the strategic relationship that ties the two countries over long decades and as adopting a view that lacks an accurate understanding of the importance of supporting Egypt’s stability,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The statement also warned of potential “negative implications” on efforts to work together on common goals and interests.
Initial reports from Cairo were that a scheduled meeting between Kushner and Foreign Ministry Sameh Shoukry was cancelled in a show of Egypt’s displeasure. But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the reports were wrong, and Kushner and Shoukry met together with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Kushner’s visit comes one day after Tillerson spoke by phone with Shoukry to tell him of the aid decision.
The delayed $195 million aid package is slated to help Egypt fight domestic security threats and terrorism. That unspent money would be returned to Congress at the end of the fiscal year next month. Instead, Tillerson authorized it to be put in a separate account and held in reserve until Egypt shows progress on “key priorities” such as human rights abuses and the new law that many nongovernmental organizations say makes their charity work illegal. Egypt should get the money eventually, the officials said.
In separate action authorized by Tillerson, the administration decided to take away from Egypt another $65.7 million in military aid and $30 million in economic aid, and give it to other countries instead. The new recipients have not been determined.
“We wanted to send the message we’re not happy at the lack of progress in human rights and the NGO law,” a State Department official said. “We want to see improvements.”
U.S. officials, whenever they have met with their Egyptian counterparts, have for a long time made a point of mentioning their concerns about human rights abuses in Egypt. They were particularly worried about the impact of the NGO law passed by parliament late last year and ratified in late May by Sissi.
The new law gives the government the power to decide who can establish an NGO and what kind of work they do. It also requires that donations of more than about $550 be preapproved. Failure to inform the government in a timely fashion potentially carries penalties of up to five years in jail and $55,000.
Many rights groups say the law in effect prohibits them from doing their job, because it bans them from engaging in anything deemed harmful to national security, public order or morals — a vague definition that they say is intended to stifle dissent.
The government has accused human rights groups of trying to undermine the social order, and some are being investigated over the source of their funds.
A State Department official said the United States thought Egypt had in effect made a promise this year that the law would never take effect. When Sissi signed it, diplomats thought they had been misled.
Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. It has received $80 billion in military and economic aid over the past 30 years. In 2013, President Barack Obama froze the supply of military equipment after the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi. When aid was resumed, Congress required that the secretary of state certify that Egypt was making progress in governing democratically.