The Egyptian government’s poor human rights record under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with rights groups estimating that Egypt currently holds about 60,000 political prisoners, but a simple bribery scheme allegedly induced the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to convince President Joe Biden to sell the country weapons.
The Biden administration promised to pursue a human rights-led foreign policy, including taking a hard line with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, because the US considers each to be a key ally in the region.
The Biden administration recently said it would not withhold as much military aid as it did last year regardless of its judgment that Egypt’s poor human rights record hasn’t improved, citing what officials said were overriding U.S. national security interests.
“September 2022 marked one year since the Egyptian government launched the national human rights strategy, but authorities took few if any steps to ease the wholesale campaign of repression against critics or repeal any of the numerous laws that are routinely used to curtail basic freedoms,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“While authorities released hundreds of detainees in a piecemeal manner, they arrested many others and re-arrested some of those released. Thousands remain unjustly detained for their peaceful activism,” said HRW. “According to a joint report released in April by the Egyptian Front for Human Rights and the Freedom Initiative, Egyptian security forces and prison staff were found to employ systematic sexual violence to degrade and torture detainees including men, women, transmen, and transwomen.”
For the fiscal year 2022, which began on October 1, 2021, the Biden administration budgeted $1.4 billion in bilateral assistance or simple, direct cash transfers to Cairo, most of it military-related. The sum is the same as the previous year.
Biden administration officials cited regional stability and international support for Ukraine’s battle against invading Russian forces as among the U.S. national security interests served by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite his regime’s retreat on some human rights benchmarks.
Egypt has been a top recipient of U.S. military aid since it signed a U.S.-brokered peace deal with Israel in 1979.
Congress in recent years has attached restrictions meant to pressure Egyptian leaders to curb human rights abuses to a comparatively small portion of the more than $1 billion in annual military aid to the country.
Rights groups and some congressional Democrats had urged the Biden administration to take a hard line against Egypt on human rights, while some lawmakers said strategic interests should be prioritized.
“I appreciate this honesty, that they say the situation is really bad but we have to do it because of other national interests,” said Amr Magdi, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who also claims administration officials “should rethink what I would say is their short-sighted vision of security.”
Connecticut’s Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy called it “a missed opportunity to show the world that our commitment to advancing human rights and democracy is more than a talking point.”
In a letter on Tuesday, Democratic legislators said despite the recent release of several high-profile prisoners, including Italian-Egyptian researcher Patrick Zaki, Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, and Ola Qaradawi, the daughter of a prominent Muslim Scholar, el-Sisi’s government had not gone far enough to address the abuses.
Two Democratic congressmen, Don Beyer and Tom Malinowski, co-chairs of the congressional Egypt Human Rights Caucus, said last year that, “Tens of thousands of political prisoners … remain in Egyptian prisons.”
“The government of Egypt has continued to engage in widespread torture, suppression of dissent, and even persecution of American citizens and the families of critics living in the United States,” they added.
Malinowski was ouster by GOP Rep. Tom Kean Jr., but Beyer did not mince words concerning Menendez’s efforts to undermine his efforts for human rights.
“The indictment alleges that a person who acted as cutout between the Sisi regime and Menendez bribed the Senator to use his position as a leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to weaken America’s response to human rights violations in Egypt,” said Beyer in a statement issued on Sunday. “Those violations include the mass detention and imprisonment of dissidents – including American citizens – without trial, as well as torture, custody deaths, and extrajudicial killings.
“Congress imposed legal restrictions on military assistance to Egypt, conditioning aid on its human rights record,” said Beyer. “The Justice Department alleges Egypt’s intelligence and military took part in a scheme that saw payments of bribes to ensure U.S. military assistance and arms sales continued despite congressional objections to Egypt’s abysmal record of repression. These acts demand response.”
“As one of those whose efforts the Egyptian regime and Senator Menendez allegedly tried to thwart, I urge my colleagues and the Administration to focus on Egypt’s role in what is clearly an intelligence operation,” said Beyer. “The Egyptian scheme that focused on Senator Menendez is part of a larger transnational influence campaign that also includes spying and harassing critics of the Sisi regime on American soil.”
“The nature of the scheme shows that the Sisi regime is deeply sensitive to U.S. assistance and that American leverage can advance the cause of human rights,” said Beyer. “The administration should take that fact and the context above into account as it makes a final determination on assistance for FY24.”
The decision on how much aid to give on the condition that the Egyptian government advances on human rights, and an annual test of how hard U.S. administrations and Congress are willing to press for human rights versus strategic concerns. has become an annual assessment
“I have always worked to hold accountable those countries, including Egypt, for human rights abuses, the repression of its citizenry and civil society, and more,” said Menendez, after federal prosecutors claimed he used his position to help the Egyptian government in exchange for bribes. “Those who now are attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don’t know the facts.”