WASHINGTON — Seven Democratic lawmakers are asking the Biden administration to withhold $300 million in military aid from Egypt until the country improves its human rights record, according to a letter from Congress to the State Department.
The lawmakers, led by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, said in the letter that they were concerned “at the ongoing, widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Egypt that threaten to destabilize the country” and noted the many political prisoners, including some legal permanent residents of the US, who “are victims of abuse and ill-treatment such as torture and medical neglect.”
Lawmakers cited the State Department’s 2021 country reports on Egypt, as well as articles from The New York Times about human rights violations in the country. The Times articles described a brutal crackdown on dissent by Egypt’s military-backed president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose government has exploited the justice system to detain thousands of political prisoners — including some arrested for minor offenses like the fun finding an anti-government Facebook post — in harsh and often deadly conditions.
The group urged the State Department to withhold the entire amount of aid that should depend on human rights reforms, which is $300 million for the coming year. US officials say the State Department is expected to decide soon how much of that aid will be given to Egypt.
Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid since it became the first Arab country in 1979 to make peace with Israel, its neighbor to the east, following the US-brokered Camp David Accords.
Egypt usually receives about $1.3 billion in annual aid from the United States and buys billions more in US military equipment each year, although $300 million of the aid comes with liabilities. Earlier this year, the Biden administration blocked $130 million of that portion, saying the country would have to demonstrate more progress on human rights, despite lawmakers’ demands to withhold the full amount. (The same week, it also approved $2.5 billion in military sales to Egypt.)
Even with that cut, Egypt remains the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world, behind Ukraine and Israel.
In January, Mr Meeks and other lawmakers urged the government to adhere to the criteria it set for Egypt in September 2021 and withhold the $130 million in aid for failing to materially improve its human rights record. Last year’s criteria focused on political prisoners and other rights issues, though they were never made public.
The lawmakers, all of whom are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent the latest letter to the State Department on Tuesday and planned to make it public on Wednesday. The New York Times received a copy of the letter.
Asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether all of the $300 million would be withheld this year, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the agency would continue to discuss the matter with US lawmakers and Egyptian officials. He said the Egypt government had made it “abundantly clear” that an improvement in human rights and civil liberties “would ultimately lead to a stronger and more lasting bilateral relationship between the United States and Egypt.”
He added that Egypt was an “indispensable partner” in the region. The United States is working with Egypt on security in the Middle East, including countering militants in Egypt’s Sinai province, and sees it as a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.
State Department officials dealing with human rights issues have argued in internal discussions to again withhold some or all aid to Egypt, US officials familiar with the debate said.
Legislators’ push for accountability from Egypt is the latest instance in which members of Congress have urged the Biden administration to take a stronger stance on human rights in authoritarian countries in the Middle East. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives recently sent separate letters to the State Department and the Pentagon asking them to report on how US-made weapons have been used by a Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen, where many civilians were killed.
Over the summer, several lawmakers, including high-ranking Democrats, criticized President Biden for agreeing to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s young de facto ruler, who announced the relentless internal repression, as well as the war in Yemen. Mr. Biden vowed during the 2020 presidential campaign to treat Saudi Arabia as an “outcast” for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, by Saudi agents. U.S. intelligence concluded they believed Prince Mohammed ordered the murder.
Senior government officials talk about the “democracy versus autocracy” paradigm at the heart of Mr Biden’s thinking, saying the president plans to convene a second democracy summit soon. Dozens of countries attended the first conclave last December, but not Egypt invited.
Proponents of keeping Egypt’s aid warn that cutting aid risks ceding Egyptian officials’ influence to China and Russia. But those asking for less funding say Egypt usually responds to US concerns when it comes with the threat of austerity.
“An additional $300 million is not necessary for Egypt’s security, is not necessary for US security, and weakens the credibility of the United States in Egypt and the rest of the world,” said Seth Binder, the campaign’s advocate. Project on Middle East Democracy, a group based in Washington. “If the government is serious about putting human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, this decision is an easy one.”
As US and international pressure on Egypt over human rights increased over the past year, Mr. el-Sisi launched a new ‘human rights strategy’, released hundreds of political prisoners and started a dialogue with the opposition to discuss greater political openness.
But human rights groups called those moves cosmetic, noting that freedoms remained severely restricted and that Egyptian security forces continued to carry out politically motivated detentions, torture, medical neglect in prisons, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Edward Wong reported from Washington, and Vivian Yee from Cairo.