A US Senator confirmed on Wednesday that the US has withheld military aid to Egypt worth $85 million due to Cairo’s failure to release a sufficient number of political prisoners. Senator Chris Murphy added that there are calls to withhold another $235m from the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. A decision on this is expected soon.
“The administration rightly decided to withhold that first tranche — $85m tied to the release of political prisoners — because there’s just no question there has not been enough progress,” said Murphy in the Senate. “I would urge the administration to finish the job and withhold the full $320m… until Egypt’s human rights and democracy record improves.”
Human rights organisations have repeatedly accused Egypt of committing widespread human rights violations under Al-Sisi’s regime, including torture and forced disappearances. Al-Sisi, however, denies the there are any political prisoners in Egypt. Stability and security, he insists, are of paramount importance and the authorities are promoting rights by trying to meet basic needs for jobs and housing.
Opposition groups and human rights organisations, though, put the number of political detainees in Egypt as around 60,000 people. Amnesty International put the figure at 114,000 in January 2021.
The US has provided Egypt with approximately $1.3 billion a year in foreign military aid for decades in order to purchase weapons systems and services from American military contractors. This aid largely followed the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Over the past ten years or so, the US Congress has made some aid subject to human rights conditions. Under US law, the $85m being withheld is dependent on Egypt making “clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners, providing detainees with due process of law, and preventing the intimidation and harassment of American citizens.” The executive branch cannot waive these conditions.
Another $235m of aid is conditional on Egypt meeting the requirements of democracy and human rights. However, the executive branch can waive these conditions if it assures Congress that doing so is in the interest of US national security.
There is another loophole regarding the larger amount, which can be provided to Egypt if it is allocated to “counter-terrorism, border security, and non-proliferation programmes” by the regime.
Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy rights group said that withholding $85m is an “important reversal” on last year. “But if the administration withholds less than it has in the past two years it would in essence be saying to Al-Sisi that it believes the Egyptian government has improved its rights record, which is just not true.”