US House Democrats Press Blinken on Military Aid to Egypt

In a letter to the US secretary of state, lawmakers described Egypt’s human rights violations as “pervasive and systemic”.

House Democrats on Tuesday urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reprogram a portion of Egypt’s annual military assistance if the North African country fails to meet the Biden administration’s human rights requirements.

After promising to make human rights “central” to the US-Egypt relationship, the administration said in September it would withhold $130 million — a fraction of Egypt’s $1.3 billion in annual US military assistance — unless Egypt improved its rights record by the administration’s deadline, reported to be Jan. 30.

The administration reportedly told the Egyptian government that in order to receive the withheld assistance it would need to end a decade-old investigation of human rights defenders and civil society groups, as well as drop charges against or release 16 people whose cases the Biden administration has previously raised with Cairo.

Egypt has since freed several prominent political prisoners but “continues to perpetuate pervasive and systemic violations of human rights,” read the letter to Blinken led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks.

“The Egyptian government must meet the administration’s conditions in full by the communicated deadline. If not, we urge you to stand by your word and immediately reprogram withheld funds,” the six House Democrats wrote.

The letter comes a day after the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of foreign affairs experts, warned that releasing the aid if the conditions are not met would essentially “reward authoritarianism.”

“We urge the administration to stand firm, for the sake of Egyptians suffering under the regime’s repression and of U.S. credibility as a champion of democratic values everywhere,” the group wrote.

Separately on Tuesday, the State Department announced it had approved more than $2.5 billion in possible arms sales to Egypt, which include C-130 Super Hercules aircraft and air defense radar systems.

The department said the proposed sales “will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a Major Non-NATO Ally country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East.”

Biden, who as a candidate pledged to send “no more blank checks” to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has come under increasing pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups. They say the administration could be doing more to hold Egypt to account, including by withholding the full amount of aid — $300 million — that Congress had conditioned on rights reforms.

In February 2021, the administration also drew sharp criticism from human rights campaigners after approving the sale of nearly $200 million worth of naval surface-to-air missiles to Cairo.

But the State Department says it continues to press Egypt publicly and privately on human rights concerns, including over the detention of perceived government critics. Earlier this month, the US Department of Justice arrested a New York man who prosecutors say spied on Sisi’s political opponents in the United States.  

US officials stress that Egypt is a top counterterrorism partner in the Middle East and has played a “constructive role” in recent regional conflicts. In particular, they point to Egypt’s successful mediation last year of the 11-day conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment. Following a meeting with Blinken in November, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called human rights “an evolutionary progress unique to each country” and cited Egypt’s new strategy for human rights and the lifting of its years-long state of emergency.

Following is the full text of the letter: 

January 25, 2022  
The Honorable Antony Blinken  
Secretary of State  
U.S. Department of State  
2201 C Street NW  
Washington, D.C. 20520 

Dear Secretary Blinken: 

We write to reaffirm our shared commitment to the important U.S. – Egypt bilateral relationship and the importance of maintaining a focus on human rights as a critical component of that relationship. Specifically, we emphasize our expectation that the Administration will reprogram the portion of military aid withheld last year if Egypt fails to comply with the full set of specific human rights benchmarks communicated by the State Department to the Egyptian government.  

While doing so, we acknowledge the long-standing and historic bilateral relationship shared by the U.S. and Egypt. Ours is a relationship rooted in shared political, economic, social and cultural ties. We recognize and affirm the important role Egypt has played in the Middle East as a party to the Camp David Accords and subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, resulting in it being the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel.

In recent years, Egypt’s important role extends to partnering with the United States in the fight against Al-Qaeda, ISIS and affiliates, and serving as facilitator and mediator between the Government of Israel and Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip.  

Nonetheless, and as the Biden Administration has rightly acknowledged, the Egyptian government continues to perpetuate pervasive and systemic violations of human rights. Tens of thousands of government critics, including journalists and human rights defenders, remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges, with many of them subject to abuse and mistreatment.

The State Department’s own 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Egypt documents “significant human rights issues” such as “torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; and political prisoners or detainees.” Furthermore, Egypt is among the “least free” countries in the world according to Freedom House and is the 3rd largest jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

In recognition of these abuses and violations of basic rights, and in compliance with the statutory requirement to withhold certain foreign military financing (FMF) funds from obligation (detailed in Sec. 7041(a)(3) of P.L. 116-94), we supported the administration’s September 2021 decision to withhold a portion of such funds.

As you stated during June 2021 testimony before the House Appropriations Committee: “When it comes to freedom of expression, when it comes to civil society, there are very significant problems that we need to address directly with our Egyptian partners.” Making clear to Egypt and the world the United States will stand by its commitment to democratic rights and basic freedoms – and adhering to statute – is critical to addressing those very problems.  

While we recognize and reaffirm important steps Egypt has taken in recent weeks to address such concerns by releasing certain political prisoners and individuals unjustly detained, the Egyptian government must meet the Administration’s conditions in full by the communicated deadline. If not, we urge you to stand by your word and immediately reprogram withheld funds.  

We urge the Biden Administration to continue its efforts to restore human rights as a vital pillar to our nation’s foreign policy and call on you to uphold these values in our bilateral relationship with Egypt. 

Thanks for your prompt attention to this matter.