For the first time, the United States Congress has made disbursement of military aid to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners without providing the US State Department the option to waive the conditions in the interests of US national security.
The condition, which comes as part of the US’s 2021 budget allocation legislature, concerns US$75 million in military aid of a total $1.3 billion earmarked for Egypt’s Armed Forces.
If signed into law, the legislation would mark the first time military aid has been conditioned on human rights benchmarks without a national security waiver, according to Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Washington DC-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
“This sends an important message to the Egyptian government that Congress is deeply concerned with its continued unjust detention of human rights defenders,” Binder tells Mada Masr.
Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned on political charges in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2013, including at least seven US nationals who are currently being held. In January 2020, Moustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old dual Egyptian-American citizen from New York died in an Egyptian prison, sparking criticism from US lawmakers and officials.
The disbursal of an additional $225 million of the 2021 military aid to Egypt has been made conditional on the Egyptian government undertaking measures to reinforce the rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights, including protecting religious minorities and women’s rights; implementing reforms to protect freedom of expression, organization and peaceful assembly, including empowering civil society organizations, human rights advocates and the media without interference; holding security forces accountable in case of allegations of human rights violations; and investigating extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.
However, the legislation grants the State Department the right to wave these conditions in the interest of US national security.
The budget must still be approved by outgoing US President Donald Trump, who has struck out against Congress and aid to Egypt in recent days, conflating portions of the annual budgetary allocations with the coronavirus relief stimulus package that have all been consolidated under a broader appropriations bill.
“For example,” Trump said on Tuesday in his criticism of the COVID-19 stimulus bill, “among the more than 5,000 pages in this bill, which nobody in Congress has read because of its length and complexity — It is called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid —this bill contains US$85.5 million for assistance to Cambodia, US$134 million to Burma, US$1.3 billion for Egypt and the Egyptian military, which will go out and buy almost exclusively Russian military equipment.”
The annual $1.3 US military aid to Egypt, however, which began in 1946 and increased significantly after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, is deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from which it is transferred to a trust fund at the Treasury Department and then used to procure weapons from US defense contractors.
In 2014, Congress began implementing the Leahy Laws on a portion of aid money to Egypt. The law prevents US security assistance to a foreign security force unit when there is credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.
In August 2017, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson froze $195 million in military assistance to Cairo amid concerns over Egyptian cooperation with North Korea and Sisi’s crackdown on civil society. The release of the funds was conditional on resolving the case of 43 staff of American and German NGOs convicted in 2013 and repealing or amending a repressive law regulating the work of NGOs. The freeze was lifted in July 2018 in recognition of the “steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific US concerns.”
Egypt has faced renewed criticism for its human rights record after authorities arrested three staff members of the prominent NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in November. Gasser Abdel Rezak, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer were arrested in November and subsequently released on the back of a far-reaching campaign calling for their release. However, former EIPR research Patrick George Zaki, who was arbitrarily arrested at Cairo International Airport in February and subjected to torture, remains in custody on remand detention.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution on Friday urging member states to reconsider EU–Egypt relations and implement more stringent monitoring and accountability mechanisms.
An EU Parliament source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity at the time called the measures put forth on Friday “the harshest so far.” The EU’s restrictive measures – which were formally adopted on December 7 – would target those involved in crimes ranging from genocide and torture to arbitrary arrests or detentions.
The resolution was drafted to work alongside new EU provisions, such as the Magnitsky Act, the source says. In November, the EU Parliament voted to grant the EU powers to freeze assets and impose travel bans on individuals involved in human rights abuses, after the bloc’s member states provisionally approved the European Magnitsky Act.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has responded to criticism of Egypt’s rights records in recent days, saying during a meeting with the technical secretariat of Egypt’s Supreme Committee for Human Rights that “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.”