Democratic lawmakers are urging the Donald Trump administration to leverage its $1.3 billion military relationship with Egypt as the US ally cracks down on human rights.
In a letter obtained by Al-Monitor, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo they were “disappointed” by his August decision to waive rights conditions tied to nearly $200 million in US weapons assistance to Egypt. They worry Egypt will see the State Department’s waiver as a rubber stamp for attacks on civil liberties, including a new law that further restricts the activity of nongovernmental organizations.
“Our fear is that the Egyptian government will perceive your decision to release this funding as an endorsement of, or acquiescence in, its repressive policies,” the senators wrote to Pompeo. “We are also concerned that President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi will view your decision as further evidence that Egypt can wait out any future attempts by the US government to apply pressure.”
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Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had previously delayed $195 million in 2017 military aid until Egypt resolved cases against dozens of NGO workers charged with operating illegally and scaled back diplomatic and defense ties with North Korea. The senators said they found Pompeo’s decision troubling because “the pressure appeared to be working,” after Egypt recently halted the implementation of parts of the 2017 NGO law and forced North Korea to cut back the size of its Cairo embassy.
“We had a window for using foreign assistance as a means for assessing long-held concerns in US-Egypt relations,” said Amr Kotb, advocacy director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. That window, he said, has “pretty much closed.”
Pompeo acknowledged that the human rights situation in Egypt “continues to deteriorate” in an August report to Congress obtained by Politico. But the Trump administration is unwilling to upset the military relationship with Cairo, long seen as a critical US partner in the Middle East.
In the same memo, the top US diplomat also lauded Egypt for providing the Pentagon with overflight rights, allowing American access to the Suez Canal and for honoring the 1978 Camp David Accords with Israel, which served as the initial impetus for defense ties. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also pushed Pompeo to release the delayed aid, Al-Monitor reported last month.
The Trump administration has overlooked human rights concerns in the past to continue support to controversial US allies. In September, the State Department re-certified US refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen over internal objections regarding increased civilian casualties in the conflict.
“As with Yemen, this is another case where the Trump administration has rode roughshod over the spirit if not the letter of the certification,” said Andrew Miller, a former National Security Council director for Egypt. “I just don’t get the sense that Pompeo is willing to fall on his sword over this.”
Despite the administration standing pat, lawmakers have tried a range of efforts to tamp down on Egypt’s human rights abuses. In May, Leahy, the top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, placed a $300 million hold on Cairo’s military aid until Sisi annuls the NGO law and pays for treatment of a US citizen injured in an Egyptian military attack, among a handful of other conditions.
The Senate has sought to slash US military aid to Egypt down to $1 billion annually, but has been consistently parried by the House. The letter, advocates hope, will give lawmakers ammunition to abolish the State Department’s authority to waive human rights conditions for military aid, a policy first instituted under the Barack Obama administration in 2015.
“The national security waiver suggests it is critical to US interests that Egypt receives the money,” said Miller, now deputy director for the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. “It wasn’t moved for 10 or 11 months. That suggests a manipulation or a derangement of the authority.”
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