Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

US Aid and Human Rights in Egypt

Biden's administration has once again used a carrot-and-stick approach with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regarding human rights in Egypt.

US Aid in Egypt
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his US counterpart Joe Biden hold a meeting on the sidelines of the COP27 summit, in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, on November 11, 2022. SAUL LOEB / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

Biden’s administration has once again used a carrot-and-stick approach with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regarding human rights in Egypt. This new American path was evident when it withheld $130 million of military aid from Egypt because it had not committed to the agreed-upon requirements regarding human rights. Biden’s administration, however, did not withhold the aid that Washington granted Cairo for improving its policies towards prisoners of conscience.

The withheld aid is equivalent to 10 per cent of the $1.3 billion that Washington provides Egypt with annually. Because of Egypt’s gruesome human rights violations, such as torture and enforced disappearances, activist groups have tried to pressure Congress to withhold a total amount of $300 million of conditional aid.

The Egyptian authorities did not react nor comment on the recent decision, which was reminiscent of earlier situations in which the American administration used aid budgets to exercise political pressure.

Though there are no official records documenting the number of political prisoners, Egyptian authorities deny claims that the country has 60,000 prisoners of conscience. Still, Biden’s administration has supported the Egyptian regime with a partial amount of the aid budget, emphasising that Cairo had made progress regarding political detentions. According to US officials, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken considered Egypt’s recent release of hundreds of prisoners significant progress in terms of political detentions and related legal procedures.

The Problem’s Origin

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price described human rights in Egypt as a “complicated issue.” According to him, Biden’s administration has pursued an approach to Egypt that reflects the full range of American national interests, including human rights.

Price summarised the issue, “Egypt is our strategic partner, and we cooperate to progress mutual interest. In doing so, we raise serious concerns regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms in Egypt.”

The US State Department’s decision to withhold aid relates to the 2021 fiscal year for US military aid. Since 2012, Congress has put conditions on aid provided to Egypt. These conditions include specific conditions regarding the political situation and public freedoms. In this context, Congress linked $300 million of the total aid budget to human rights-related conditions.

Of this budget, $225 million is contingent on sustaining and taking practical steps regarding several human rights conditions. $75 million is subject to making clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and upholding detainees’ rights to due process of law.

The American approach places concerns regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal footing with maintaining partnership and dialogue.

Given this notion, Washington believes that Cairo has made progress. That progress has been evident in the “unprecedented number” of releases in 2022, the formation of the Presidential Pardon Committee and the implementation of the National Dialogue.

Biden’s administration declared that Egypt had made progress through its release of about 500 political detainees. However, conflict is looming between Congress and Biden’s administration regarding the State Department’s decision to provide part of the aid budget. US Senator Chris Murphy urged Biden’s administration to withhold the entire $300 million. Murphy is a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee member and an outspoken critic of the Egyptian government’s treatment of political prisoners.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes that the decision “does not sufficiently respond to [Egypt’s] ongoing repression and rights abuses.” The organisation criticised the Biden administration’s decision to clear $75 million for Cairo’s progress regarding political detainees.

HRW believes that the repression of the political opposition in Egypt remains severe. In this context, Nicole Widdersheim, Deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch, believes there is a human rights crisis in Egypt. Widdersheim stressed that the funding that was withheld by the United States last year “did not go far enough” to bring about a fundamental change regarding human rights in Egypt.

US Aid in Egypt
People on November 13th, 2022 gathered at the Dam Square in Amsterdam during a protest against greenwashing the human rights crisis during the COP27 in Egypt. Romy Arroyo Fernandez/ NurPhoto via AFP.

HRW emphasises that human rights in Egypt have “not fundamentally improved” since 2021. The organisation described Case 173 as a “notorious court proceeding in which Egypt is prosecuting rights organisations over allegedly receiving foreign funds.”

HRW joined other local and international non-governmental groups in a bid to urge Biden to withhold all military aid and suspend arms deals with Egypt, given its failure to improve human rights benchmarks.

Nevertheless, the frequent US talk regarding prisoners of conscience and the controversial National Dialogue, recently organised by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have contributed to the release of many prisoners.

The Egyptian regime has always denied the existence of prisoners of conscience in Egypt and argues that instead, the focus should be on stability and security. Despite this, authorities have unofficially acknowledged the existence of these prisoners and have started their release.

The Presidential Pardon Committee has announced that it has started reintegrating detainees that have been released by decision of the Public Prosecution or a Presidential Pardon. According to committee member Mohamed Abd al-Aziz, the committee started addressing several requests to either reintegrate released prisoners into their previous occupations or provide them with new opportunities. Moreover, the committee coordinated with several government parties to settle procedures related to travel bans and the freezing of funds.

The committee announced that it would handle all requests from released prisoners to meet any needs or requirements to return to everyday life. The committee also tries to mitigate the repercussions of prison sentences.

In a TV interview, Abd al-Aziz confirmed the upcoming release of more prisoners. He also announced the establishment of an initiative to investigate issues related to work and study that will, at the same time, cooperate with the concerned government entities to solve these issues.

Key officials and experts in Biden’s administration believe Egypt is still a vital ally in the Middle East. According to them, Egypt’s cooperation with Washington is crucial in the war on terrorism and in maintaining the region’s stability with Israel. They believe withholding military aid would jeopardise US-Egyptian relations and push Egypt towards America’s geo-political opponents, such as Russia and China.

The True Value of Aid

In 2019, Thomas Goldberger, the former acting US ambassador to Cairo, stated, “The United States has supported Egypt with more than $80 billion in security and economic assistance, the cornerstone of our commitment to Egypt’s stability and prosperity as part of our broader commitment to peace in the Middle East.”

He had previously confirmed that Cairo was provided with aid to “better equip the Egyptian military.” According to him, this aid is annual and delivered through the Foreign Military Financing Program (FMF).

On the other hand, Egyptian experts and analysts believe that US aid is primarily connected to Washington’s political agenda in the region. They believe the aid is useless, and some believe the economic, security and strategic gains the US has made far exceed any partial or circumstantial gain Cairo has made.

From that perspective, US aid was not intended to address the causes of poverty or achieve actual development but instead to eliminate the public sector. Also, it enforced free market benchmarks on the ill-equipped Egyptian economy, which lacks national economic structures that are able to compete or commit to development requirements.

Regarding this notion, Ehab Wahba, Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister, points to what he describes as “common misconceptions about US aid to Egypt.” Wahba, who specialises in US affairs, pointed out that the aid was not included in the provisions of the Camp David Accords and the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel.

The aid originated from US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s 1979 speech to his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts, in which he emphasised the commitment of the United States to provide aid to both sides. The US secretary of defense considered the aid an investment in preserving the stability of the Middle East, an acknowledgement of the Egyptian role in influencing the course of affairs in the region, and the importance of the peace treaty.

Thus, Egypt is only second to Israel in receiving US aid. According to an analysis, the aid helped operate several American companies in Egypt to the benefit of the US economy. Egypt, on the other hand, only garnered minor returns. From this perspective, 80 per cent of the aid provided to Egypt has made its way back to the US.

Threatening to withhold aid is not a novelty to US policy. Naturally, this approach raises questions about the sincerity of the Biden administration’s intention to enforce human rights observance in support of its allies.

In July 2020, Biden tweeted, “No More Blank Checks for Trump’s Favourite Dictator,” referring to al-Sisi, who ignored the matter.

However, in his meeting with al-Sisi on 16 July 2022, Biden pledged $50 million to support food security in Egypt. He also promised to help offset the severe global consequences of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

And so, President Biden and President al-Sisi emphasised their “mutual commitment to a constructive dialogue on human rights, which is an integral component of the strong US-Egypt partnership.”

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