Egypt: US Senator blocks $75m in military assistance over human rights

By Stephanie al-Hakim

Posted on Friday, 21 October 2022 15:43, updated on Sunday, 23 October 2022 19:03
US President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A $75m military aid package has been blocked by US Senator Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Appropriations committee over his objections to Egypt’s human rights’ record. In recent years, Congress has made its annual $300m of the total $1.3bn aid package to Egypt contingent on progress on its human rights.

But following an assessment by the State department that was rejected by Leahy, the Biden administration was obliged to cut down its annual military aid to Cairo. “We should take this law very seriously, because the situation facing political prisoners in Egypt is deplorable. We can’t give short shrift to the law because of other policy considerations. We all have a responsibility to uphold the law and to defend the due process rights of the accused, whether here or in Egypt,” the Senator said in a statement.

This is the second year in a row that the US administration has reprogrammed military aid for Egypt. “This is an important step by the administration, reaffirming to the Egyptian government that its human rights record will affect the relationship and we have seen [President] Sisi’s government take some positive steps in response,” Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle-East Democracy (POMED), tells The Africa Report.

Silencing of environmental activists ahead of COP27

Among many critics, Human Rights Watch has accused Egypt of curtailing environmentalist activists and groups from carrying out independent research and field work to protect the environment as COP27 approaches.

13 individuals – advocates, researchers and journalists focusing on the environment – who were interviewed, described to HRW how authorities have intimidated them, and created an atmosphere of fear, dissuading many from continuing to do their jobs. In addition, the deterioration of Alaa Abdelfattah’s health, a high profile political prisoner who has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days, is a looming concern for his family and friends.

“For around the last decade, there has been conditions on a portion of this military assistance because of human rights concerns, so congress puts into law these conditions and then it’s up to the administration to execute the law,”  says Binder, who is also an expert on the implications of arms trade in the Middle-East.

Conditions in place

Senator Leahy’s rejection of the assessment offered by the State Department is reflective of some peculiarities of the congressional system as Michael Hanna, Director of the US Program at Crisis Group says. “Individual powers that senators, particularly senior senators, can have a big say in terms of these appropriations and he (Leahy) effectively took advantage of the short calendar and the time […] before the money could actually be appropriated. These chairs of committees have a great deal of authority and can exercise it in various ways based on Senate traditions”.

The committee led by Leahy has jurisdiction over spending legislation, including US financial assistance for Egypt.

Here is a breakdown of the spending:

  • Of the $300m, only $95m will be delivered on the basis they serve for counter-terrorism, border security and non-proliferation programmes.
  • $75m was blocked by Leahy because the Egyptians did not meet human rights requirements.
  • $130m has been reprogrammed, meaning it will not be delivered to the Egyptians, but be used for other countries.
  • $1bn of the total $ 1.3bn has no conditions attached and was delivered to Egypt in January 2022.
  • From the total $1.3bn in annual military aid, Egypt will only receive $1.095bn for the fiscal year of 2021.

To release the blocked $75m by Leahy, a condition is in place for “clear and consistent progress”, including the release of political prisoners with provision of detainees’ due legal process.

This remaining amount excludes any conditions that could work to benefit Egypt’s other pending needs, such as counter terrorism. The simple release of political detainees would not suffice given it leaves holes in the system for it to be repeated.

Congress vs Biden administration

This blocking of funds reflects a growing gap between Congress and the priorities of the Biden administration. “There continues to be concern in Congress about the human rights situation and the approach taken by the Biden administration. This divergence is probably here to stay and Egypt will have to contend with it.

“During the campaign, Biden set the bar quite high. Egypt and Saudi Arabia took heavy criticism from the then democratic nominee and that raised expectations that there weren’t going to be blind checks, more consequences from repression and anti-democratic,” Hanna tells The Africa Report. 

Egyptian authorities have arrested 60,000 individuals, and forcibly disappeared hundreds since 2013

Leahy’s remarks resonate strongly for countless rights groups, as the release of 500 prisoners is not deemed enough for the senior Senator, and that “clear and consistent progress” has not been met by Cairo.

HRW adds that Egyptian authorities have arrested 60,000 individuals, and forcibly disappeared hundreds since 2013, while thousands are having their (often illegal) pre-trial detention renewed.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has denied that Egypt holds political prisoners despite criticism by Amnesty International and HRW that his government leads a campaign of widespread abuse, torture and detention of thousands of political prisoners.

Cairo is, in the eyes of US interest, a strategic ally, an important mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and vital in the stability of the region and the rest of the world as it controls the Suez Canal. Consequently, Washington is often reluctant to take a tougher stance on Egypt. The issue of human rights thus remains a conundrum on whether to push for it or pursue American interests and keep Egypt as a vital ally.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options