Prioritizing U.S. national security interests over human rights, the Biden administration has approved $235 million in military aid to Egypt, which it had withheld over the past two years because of the country’s repressive policies.
The decision means the United States will withhold only a small portion — $85 million — of the $1.3 billion in military aid allocated to Egypt annually. It also reflects a decision by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other officials in the administration that America’s relationship with the region’s most populous country is too important to risk breaking, despite pleas from human rights activists for a much tougher line from Washington.
State Department officials explained the decision on Thursday, saying the United States continues to have serious human rights concerns in Egypt, which has been ruled by a repressive military government for a decade.
The officials emphasized that the approval of the $235 million does not reflect the Biden administration’s de-emphasis on human rights. They noted that Mr. Blinken raised the cases of political prisoners and other abuses with Egypt’s leaders during a visit to Cairo in January and that he will continue to press on these issues.
But they conceded that Mr. Blinken had granted a waiver to release the previously withheld funds because he concluded that U.S. national security interests outweighed congressionally mandated benchmarks for Egypt’s human rights progress.
As an example of Egypt’s contribution to U.S. national security, a senior State Department official cited a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise, Bright Star 2023, held over the past two weeks. The US military described the exercise as focused on “counterterrorism, regional security and efforts to counter the spread of violent extremism.”
The officials also pointed to Egypt’s role in brokering a ceasefire in the civil conflict in Sudan and supporting elections in Libya.
Mr. Blinken drew a line, refusing to approve an $85 million tranche of aid that Congress has tied to Egypt’s record of releasing political prisoners, preventing harassment of American citizens and providing a fair trial to prisoners. This amounts to a cut of approximately 6.5 percent in military aid to Egypt for the coming budget year.
Mai El-Sadany, the executive director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the Biden administration’s decision to withhold $85 million in aid to Egypt was welcome but did not go far enough.
“What we are seeing in Egypt is far from meaningful progress on human rights,” she said. “If we fail to determine the full amount allowed by law, it will provide cover for the Egyptian authorities, which they will weaponize to continue this ongoing repression just months before the planned presidential elections, to justify and intensify.”
The decision is also sure to frustrate many lawmakers in Washington, who have pushed for a tougher stance on human rights issues.
On August 10, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and 10 other members of the committee sent a letter to Mr. Blinken urging that Egypt should reject any condition-based foreign military financing are denied.
The letter cited reports of “ongoing and ongoing systematic violations of human rights in Egypt,” including the detention and mistreatment of thousands of “journalists, peaceful civil society activists, human rights defenders and political figures.”
The lawmakers urged Mr. Blinken to withhold both the $235 million and $85 million in conditional military aid — $320 million in total — “until Egypt’s human rights record significantly improves.” improves.” (The remaining $980 million in annual U.S. military assistance is not subject to human rights conditions.)
There are few signs that this will happen anytime soon.
As its popularity wanes amid a deep economic crisis, the Egyptian government has made some small gestures toward greater political inclusivity. Egypt formed a presidential pardon committee last year to oversee the release of hundreds of political prisoners and launched a “national dialogue” with political opponents and some activists to discuss a new direction for the country. It has also released several high-profile dissidents in recent months, including Ahmed Douma, a prominent face of Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution, and Mohamed el-Baqer, a rights lawyer.
But authorities continue to arrest people for alleged opposition to the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, including in recent weeks some released from detention years ago and others whose only crime appeared to be close ties to known dissidents. . Rights groups say Egypt arrests three people for every prisoner it releases.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading rights group, announced Thursday that it was at least temporarily withdrawing from the dialogue after Mohamed Zahran, a founder of Egypt’s teachers union who had participated in the dialogue, was arrested in late August.
The human rights crisis in Egypt has “reached unprecedented levels,” the group said in a statement.
Following the State Department’s announcement, Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, called the decision “a missed opportunity to show the world that our commitment to advancing human rights and democracy is more than a talking point. ”
Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington.