WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will withhold $85 million from Egypt’s annual military assistance over human rights concerns, a smaller sum than Washington held back from Cairo’s aid package in each of the two previous years.
The move will likely come as a disappointment to human rights advocates and many Democratic lawmakers who pushed the administration to withhold the full amount of aid — $320 million — that Congress had made contingent on the North African country improving its rights record.
At $1.3 billion each year, Egypt ranks behind only Israel as the second-largest recipient of US military assistance. Since 2014, lawmakers have sought to use that aid as leverage with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military general under whom human rights have sharply deteriorated.
On Monday, the State Department notified lawmakers that it was withholding $85 million, the release of which would have required Secretary of State Antony Blinken to certify that Egypt made “clear and consistent” progress on the release of political prisoners, due process and preventing the intimidation and harassment of Americans. Blinken did not make that determination.
“There has been a significantly reduced pace and number of releases of Egyptian political prisoners this year, coupled as well with an increase in politically motivated arrests,” a senior State Department official told reporters on a phone briefing Thursday.
Those withheld funds, according to the congressional notification seen by Al-Monitor, will be reprogrammed, with $30 million going to the Lebanese armed forces and $55 million to Taiwan.
The Biden administration chose to release the remaining $235 million in conditioned aid. Rather than certify that Egypt had met the rights-related conditions attached to it, Blinken used a waiver that allows the administration to release the aid if doing so is determined to be in the US national security interest.
The administration declined to use the waiver during the previous two years, and withheld $130 million in assistance from Egypt.
Senior State Department officials said the decision to waive the conditions this year reflects Egypt's “specific and ongoing contributions to US national security priorities.” They did not elaborate on why Egypt’s cooperation merited a national security waiver this year but not during the administration’s first two years in office.
“The specific ongoing contributions naturally change from year to year, and therefore our assessment is also going to change from year to year,” an official said.
The administration views Egypt as a key counterterrorism partner and important regional mediator in conflicts between Israel and Gaza-based militants. Biden officials say they’ve repeatedly raised human rights concerns with Egyptian officials both publicly and privately, including during Blinken's visit to Cairo in January.
But critics say the administration's decision to bypass the congressionally mandated conditions on Egypt's aid this year runs counter to President Joe Biden’s campaign promise of sending “no more blank checks” to Sisi.
Todd Ruffner, advocacy director of the Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based organization that advocates for political prisoners, called the move an “embarrassing blow to US credibility.”
The decision "lays bare just how little human rights factor into US priorities,” Ruffner said in a statement. “This represents a reward to Sisi’s Egypt for increased repression.”
Since Sisi came to power after a 2013 takeover that unseated the country’s first democratically elected president, rights groups have documented what they say is a crackdown aimed at punishing and intimidating government critics. New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch says at least 60,000 people have been arrested on political grounds in Egypt, many held without trial.
Sisi, who is expected to run for re-election next year, has come under pressure in Egypt for his handling of the economy. Inflation hit a record high last month, and the Egyptian pound has lost roughly half its value against the US dollar since March 2022.
On Thursday, the Citizen Lab watchdog group said former Egyptian lawmaker Ahmed Tantawy had his phone hacked several times with European commercial spyware after he announced his intention to run against Sisi. A US official said Thursday the administration was closely following the story.
Ahead of the US aid decision, Sisi pardoned several high-profile detainees who spent years behind bars. They include prominent rights attorney Mohamed El-Baqer, researcher Patrick Zaki and protest leader Ahmed Douma. Rights groups, however, describe those cases as outliers amid a wave of new arrests.
Just last month, Egyptian authorities arrested opposition figure and publisher Hisham Kassem, who faces up to three years in prison on defamation and other charges that rights groups say are politically motivated.
A representative for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.
The Egyptian government has previously denied holding political prisoners and says many of the protesters, journalists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood languishing in Egypt’s jails constitute a national security threat.