US report says Egypt failing on rights, Sinai monitor access
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US report says Egypt failing on rights, Sinai monitor access

State Department memorandum says human rights in country deteriorating, Cairo not allowing US observers to enter restive peninsula

A picture taken on September 17, 2017, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, along the border with Egypt, shows smoke billowing from Egypt's North Sinai. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
A picture taken on September 17, 2017, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, along the border with Egypt, shows smoke billowing from Egypt's North Sinai. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Egypt is failing to protect free speech and its minorities, investigate abuses by its forces or grant US monitors access to the conflict-ridden Sinai Peninsula, according to a damning Trump administration report obtained by The Associated Press.

The US grievances, detailed in a State Department memorandum to Congress, are likely to draw consternation from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who meets Wednesday with President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering. The memo was legally required for the Trump administration to continue giving certain US aid to Cairo despite its failure to meet several conditions on good governance.

“The overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate,” the memo says. “There is a continuing problem with arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances. There are reports of extrajudicial killings. There are numerous allegations of torture and deaths in detention.”

Last month, the Trump administration cut nearly $100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt, a key counterterrorism partner that has repeatedly run afoul of the US over its human rights record. But the administration said Egypt would still receive almost $200 million more in military financing, on a delayed basis, if it makes improvements, including easing tight restrictions on civic groups.

Canadian al-Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy holds up an Egyptian flag after a retrial in a courthouse near Tora Prison in Cairo, Egypt, February 12, 2015. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

Although the US determined it couldn’t certify that Egypt was meeting its conditions to receive the aid, the law allows Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to waive those conditions if he determines it’s in US national security interests to provide the funds anyway. But the law requires a detailed “memorandum of justification” outlining how Egypt is falling short.

Tillerson sent the memo to Congress on August 22, the same day the funding decision was announced. But the State Department has declined to make the memo public, despite requests from the media and human rights groups. The memo is considered embarrassing to Sissi, who has denounced previous human rights critiques as baseless.

Sissi did not directly address global critiques of his country’s rights record in his speech to the UN on Tuesday. But the Egyptian leader said his country was working to empower its people economically despite being “encircled by the most dangerous crises in the world.”

Another major US concern is the lack of access Egypt has granted American officials in northern Sinai, where Sissi is grappling with an insurgency by Islamic militants. Egyptian authorities have barred journalists and most others from traveling there, leaving news outlets to rely entirely on statements by the police or the military spokesman.

Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with soldiers assigned to the Multinational Force and Observers at the el-Gorah Camp in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt on February 21, 2016. (D. Myles Cullen/US Department of Defense)

The report said Egypt has only allowed U.S. officials to visit certain facilities used by an international observer force, and development projects near the Suez Canal. Stephen McInerney, who runs the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said that raises questions about whether the US can legally keep providing military aid and equipment. Under the terms of the aid, the U.S. must be able to monitor how money and weapons transferred to foreign governments are used.

“The US administration deserves credit for acknowledging in this report the brutal reality of escalating human rights abuses by the Egyptian state,” McInerney said.

In the report, the US said Cairo is failing to meet five criteria laid out in the annual spending bill covering foreign aid. The memo cited specific incidents, including the arrest of more than 30 members of opposition parties since May. In that same period, the report said, the Egyptians have blocked more than 100 online media outlets, frozen assets of activists and failed to provide due process for political detainees.

A woman walks past an Egyptian policeman, a day ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Jan. 25, 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt on Jan. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Roger Anis)

“Arrests often occur without warrants or judicial orders,” the report said. “Conditions in prisons and detention centers are harsh due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and poor ventilation.”

The memo also criticizes Cairo for granting “impunity” to its police and security forces despite reports of “arbitrary killings” of those being arrested or in custody.

And it faults Sissi for signing a law in May that’s viewed as a crackdown on non-governmental groups, including those that advocate for better rights in Egypt.

President Donald Trump welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to the West Wing of the White House, April 3, 2017. (Mark Wilson Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

The State Department didn’t say why it has declined to make the report public.

After the AP obtained a copy, a State Department official said the US had determined increased security cooperation with Cairo was important to US national security despite “serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt.” The official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel, receiving about $1.3 billion annually. Trump has generally avoided direct criticism of Sissi over his country’s human rights record, making no mention of it in a public statement issued after their first meeting in the Oval Office in April.

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