The US will freeze $85 million earmarked for military aid to Egypt over Cairo’s continued incarceration of political prisoners and other human rights issues, a senator said this week.
A decision on withholding another $235 million is expected to come soon, according to two sources familiar with the developments cited by the Reuters news agency.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy announced the decision from the Senate floor on Tuesday while urging President Joe Biden’s administration to hold back the rest of the funds until Cairo stems what critics say is rampant abuse of prisoners, dissidents and others.
“The administration rightly decided to withhold that first tranche – $85 million tied to the release of political prisoners – because there’s just no question there has not been enough progress,” Senator Murphy said on the Senate floor.
“I would urge the administration to finish the job and withhold the full $320 million… until Egypt’s human rights and democracy record improves,” he said.
Washington has repeatedly criticized Cairo’s human rights record, accusing authorities of the use of torture, “life-threatening prison conditions” and curbs on free speech.
The US provides Egypt with over $1 billion in aid annually, part of a commitment made as part of Egypt’s historic 1978 peace treaty with Israel, which also gets billions in US aid. Previous US decisions to withhold funds have had little public impact on ties between Jerusalem and Cairo.
Congress has made some of the military aid contingent on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi making progress on his government’s poor record for political imprisonment and human rights.
Responding to Murphy’s remarks, a State Department spokesperson said “We are consulting with Congress as we finalize our actions.”
A State Department letter to congressional committees detailing foreign military financing explained that of the cash held back from Egypt, $55 million will instead go to Taiwan and the remaining $30 million to Lebanon, Reuters said.
US law specifies that the $85 million depends 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,” Murphy said.
Those terms cannot be waived by the executive branch by the executive branch, though it can overlook certain democracy and human rights requirements to supply the other $235 million if it is deemed a US national security interest.
In 2022, the US permitted the full amount subject to headway regarding political detentions — at the time $75 million — and also approved another $95 million using an exception for aid used for Egyptian counterterrorism, border security and non-proliferation.
However, $130 million was withheld, matching the sum kept back the year before.
Rights groups and some US lawmakers have urged the administration to withhold the full $300 million from Egypt, whose security forces and prisons are notorious for detention, torture and disappearances of democracy and rights activists, journalists, writers, political figures and others.
Egypt is a key ally of the United States and one of its top recipients of military aid.
In January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Sissi to “free all political prisoners” — of which rights groups estimate Egypt holds tens of thousands — while welcoming the “important strides” the country had made.
Egypt in August pardoned a leading activist, winning praise from Blinken.
Congress’s conditioning of some of Egypt’s aid makes for an annual public test of the Biden administration’s balancing of strategic interests and human rights. US President Joe Biden had vowed to put human rights and American values at the core of his administration’s foreign policy.
Under Sissi, Egypt has seen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in its modern history. Officials have targeted not only Islamist political opponents but also pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics. Lengthy pretrial detentions have become a common practice to keep the government’s critics behind bars for as long as possible.