Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The US is yet to Toughen its Stance on Human Rights in Egypt

Egypt prisons
A picture taken during a guided tour organised by Egypt’s State Information Service on February 11, 2020, shows an Egyptian policeman near watch towers at Tora prison on the southern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Photo: Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

The US is holding back part of its $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt in a bid to compel the Sisi government into railing in its deteriorating human rights record. Some question, however, whether US President Joe Biden will put his promises on holding human rights abusers to account into action following a history of waning scrutiny.

At the end of last year, the US Congress passed a bill, making a proportion of the military aid disbursed periodically to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners.

The ring-fenced $75 million is being withheld until the Secretary of State determines Egypt is making “clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law”.

While aid to Egypt has been consistently withheld in the past, this is the first time the US State Department cannot exercise a waiver option in the interests of US national security.

In addition, $225 million is also being frozen, covered by a broad condition that the Secretary of State is satisfied Egypt is taking sustained and effective steps toward reforms that promote rights, the rule of law and democracy, while allowing the US to monitor its efforts. That allocation will be subject to the national security waiver that has been exercised under the administrations of Trump and Obama.

Suspending the waiver for a proportion of military aid is a nod towards US President Joe Biden’s tough campaign rhetoric that there are “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator'”, referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and his first foreign policy speech promising the centrality of democracy and rule of law in American diplomacy.

The remaining $1 billion of foreign military financing will be disbursed to Egypt without conditions.

“The point of conditioning the $300 million is not that it would break the bank for the Egyptian military, but that it sends a signal from the US of concern about human rights abuses in Egypt”, says Michele Dunne, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A recent $200 million weapons deal, however, recently drew the ire of human rights observers who questioned whether Biden’s hard stance on human rights overseas had any teeth.

“On one hand [the Biden administration] has this strong rhetoric, but then going through with this sale really is sending conflicting signals, and undercutting that message”, said Seth Binder, Advocacy Officer at Project on Middle East Democracy, speaking to Fanack.

The sale was for 168 tactical missiles intended to improve defence around the Red Sea and coastal areas, reported Al Jazeera.

“As we have seen with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration seems to be keen to show that it will help allies with legitimate defensive needs but will criticise and even punish human rights abuses more than Trump did”, insists Dunne.

Under Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released $1.2 billion of aid to Egypt despite ongoing human rights concerns.

However his predecessor, fellow Republican Rex Tillerson, had initially held back $195 million, detailing several specific conditions, namely the reform of a controversial NGO law that would have diminished civil society, the release of 43 NGO staff convicted in 2013 and to scale back cooperation with North Korea, which were all acted upon in some degree.

That “shows that if the United States is actually willing to push the Egyptians on some of these concerns, they can in fact, see results”, says Binder.

There are around 60,000 detainees in Egypt considered political prisoners, including academics, activists and journalists.

Amnesty International revealed in a report earlier this year cruel and inhuman conditions of prisoners in the 16 prisons it looked into.

“Prison officials show utter disregard for the lives and wellbeing of prisoners crammed into the country’s overcrowded prisons and largely ignore their health needs”, said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.

“They leave it to the prisoners’ families to provide them with medication, food and cash to buy basics like soap and inflict additional suffering by denying them adequate medical treatment or timely transfer to hospitals”, he said.

The report further added that conditions in prisons, including in prolonged solitary confinement and the denial of decent health care could have contributed a number of deaths in custody, citing 37 potential cases the human rights organisation was aware of and another 12 it investigated, while Swiss NGO AlKarama noted in 2017, the trebling of deaths in detention since Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

Among those currently languishing in Egypt’s jails are several US citizens, and last year, the death of Egyptian-American Moustafa Kassem sparked censure from US officials after the 54-year-old died following a hunger strike.

Counter-terrorism and “morality” laws have also triggered concern, as has the curtailment on freedom of expression and abuses in the north Sinai region as Egyptian security forces conduct anti-terrorism operations.

The seriousness of the human rights situation in Egypt has prompted the European Parliament to pass a resolution to reconsider EU–Egypt relations with more rigid monitoring and accountability mechanisms in play, described as the harshest to date.

That resolution, passed in December 2020, also follows calls from Congress to release political prisoners.

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry has reportedly said “the march toward comprehensive development led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is steadily moving forward according to an integrated vision that takes into account human rights in their broad, holistic sense and addresses the needs and aspirations of Egyptian citizens before anything else”.

Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has reportedly told Shoukry of the key focus on human rights in Washington and Cairo’s relationship, allegedly leading to growing concern in the foreign ministry, while media sources state they are holding back from making hastened “concessions to the Biden administration at the current stage”.

However, the release of some prisoners is likely inevitable for the Sisi regime should it be determined to secure the full aid package. And it has indicated it can release a select number of prisoners as it has done previously with ex-army chief Sami Anan and Hazem Hosny.

Military aid to Egypt — the second largest recipient of US aid — began in 1946, increasing after Egypt and Israel’s 1979 peace treaty and is held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York before it is transferred to the Treasury department from where weapons are bought from US defense contractors.

It is yet to be determined who or how many prison amnesties will fulfil the US’s determinations to deem the release of conditional aid, or whether the full ring-fenced $300 million will be held up to greater scrutiny than seen in recent years.

Despite several mechanism, such as the Leahy Laws and section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, there has been lagging application of legislation.

The Leahy Laws, which were designed to prevent US security assistance to a foreign security force unit if that unit has committed a human rights violation, has experienced lagging application in Egypt.

The Foreign Assistance Act as well, says Binder, is seldom invoked on its human rights provisions that state “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”.

The aid package itself has a two-year term, so a determination could in theory come as late as the end of the fiscal year of 2022.

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