U.S. cuts to Egypt aid a ‘half-hearted’ measure of restoring rights

Egypt's position as a security partner for the U.S. might prove more valuable than human rights.

Crackdowns on civil society groups and media critical of the Egyptian government have been rampant since 2013 CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
Crackdowns on civil society groups and media critical of the Egyptian government have been rampant since 2013 CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Citing an unnamed official source, Reuters on Tuesday broke the news that the United States will withhold $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and delay another $195 million because of the country’s “failure to make progress on respecting human rights and democratic norms.”

The response to the aid cut and delay was swift, if confusing. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry initially said that he would not meet with Trump’s advisor Jared Kushner on Wednesday in Cairo to discuss regional matters. But according to the Associated Press, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Shoukry both met with Kushner.

Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt campaigner, told ThinkProgress that while the rights group “applauds the move by the U.S.” to hold Egypt accountable on its treatment rights groups and NGOs, there is a feeling that the measure is “half-hearted.”

“We are disappointed that this concern is not reflected in the continued transfer of arms, which are used in the repression and human rights violations in Egypt,” said Baoumi

According to a 2016 report issued by Congressional Research Service, Egypt ranks second on the list of developing countries signing arms transfer deals, with $11.9 billion in agreements signed in 2015.

Sisi has consistently ignored calls – domestic and international – to reverse course on crackdowns and measures such as the ratification of a new law that, according to a joint letter signed by NGOs, “ushers in unprecedented levels of repression and will criminalize the work of many NGOs, making it impossible for them to function independently.”

So will Sisi now bow to the demands of the United States?

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like likely,” said Baoumi. “However, the U.S. does have lots of leverage on Egypt,” he said, pointing to the fact that Shoukry did, ultimately meet with Kushner as proof that Egypt is not willing to cut down any lines of communication with the United States.

“[The U.S.] can use this leverage to push for some sort of policy change in favor of a more democratic society, in favor of removing restrictions on freedom of expression, and in favor of cutting down on impunity and human rights offenses,” said Baoumi

According to Human Rights Watch, there have been at least 7,400 military trials in the country since Sisi assumed power in 2013, deposing President Mohamed Morsi and designating the Muslim Brotherhood party that backed him as a terrorist organization.

The sum does not represent the full extent of U.S. aid to Egypt, which runs at around $1.3 billion each year, with the funds being up in the air since April, when Sisi visited President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.

Defense News reported at the time:

…the White House’s 2018 budget plans may target military aid to Egypt in a larger move to slash funding for diplomacy and development. The White House’s initial budget proposal has proposed replacing Washington’s longstanding foreign military financing program with a loans program — except for the aid committed to Israel.

Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said that withholding aid could make a difference, but, “It depends, at the end of the day, how the Trump administration will be committed to this decision,” said Hassan, who was forced to flee Egypt for France in a 2015 crackdown on NGOs.

Sisi too, has some leverage — Egypt is considered an important U.S. partner in the region.

“Sisi and his media have been celebrating his ‘honeymoon’ with President Trump, selling to the Egyptian public that other countries around the world are like Egypt – a one-man-show with no administration,” said Hassan.

But the answer to how Sisi will ultimately handle this ultimatum might be seen in how Egypt’s foreign ministry responded to news of the cuts.

Al Ahram reported the official response to the aid cut, which reflected a “misjudgement about the nature of strategic relations.” The statement continued, “Egypt’s stability in light of the economic and security challenges facing the Egyptian people and also and implies a mixing of cards that may have negative repercussions on achieving Egyptian-American common interests.”

“‘Don’t be concerned about Egyptians who are subjected to torture and extrajudicial killing’ – this is the main message, if you read between the lines,” said Hassan.

“They conveyed another message: If you insist on paying attention to the human rights of Egyptians, we can’t guarantee that we can take care of your security concerns in the region,” he said, adding that Sisi had no doubt emphasized these points with Kusher. “But anyway, the United States has a record of turning a blind eye to human rights [violations] not only in Egypt, but other parts of the world for the sake of short-term security interests.”