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US hails Egypt’s ‘constructive’ role in Gaza, elsewhere, despite rights concerns

Pentagon official says Biden administration believes military assistance to Cairo is a ‘critical tool’ in addressing its security needs

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is seated during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace, on May 26, 2021, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is seated during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace, on May 26, 2021, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

WASHINGTON — United States President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday called Egypt a “constructive” defense partner as it considers new military aid despite concerns on human rights.

Biden took office vowing no more “blank checks” to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi due to his sweeping crackdown on dissent, but is considering whether to release $300 million in military aid that was linked by Congress to human rights standards.

Questioned at a Senate hearing, US State Department and Pentagon officials said that Biden has made human rights a priority in talks with Egypt.

“But we also believe and support that Egypt has legitimate security concerns and believe that security assistance to Egypt is a critical tool in supporting those needs,” said Dana Stroul, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

“The current view of the administration is that Egypt is playing a constructive role when it comes to border security, Libya, GERD [the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam], obviously the conflict in Gaza, et cetera,” she said, pointing as well to US military overflights and Suez Canal transit.

Stroul also praised Egypt for agreeing to devote its own funds — not just part of its $1.3 billion in annual US security aid — to upgrade its Apache helicopters.

Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, helped broker a May ceasefire that ended the worst fighting in years between the Jewish state and Hamas, the Islamist terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.

A Hamas police officer stands guards at the main square in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet with Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, unseen, in Gaza City, on May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Sissi was closely allied with former president Donald Trump, who unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a deal on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a vast project on the Nile that Egypt and Sudan fear will deprive them of vital water.

Stroul was responding to Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who voiced doubt that Egypt would curb cooperation due to lower aid and warned that the US “compromises our ability to lead the world” on human rights if Egypt faces no consequences.

He pointed to the prison treatment of Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen who has filed a lawsuit alleging torture in Egyptian custody.

“That’s the kind of behavior that we empower when we continue to send $1.3 billion to that regime,” Murphy said.

Human rights groups have voiced outrage at reports that Egyptian agents have harassed Soltan on US soil since his release and have urged Biden to exert pressure by cutting military aid.

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