WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said Thursday that Egypt's poor human rights record hasn't improved, but it won't withhold as much military aid as it did last year regardless. Administration officials cited what they said were overriding U.S. national security interests for the decision to limit the extent they would penalize Egypt for the abuses.
The 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 Sisi's retreat on some human rights benchmarks. They briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department.
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.
An international rights advocate expressed disappointment Thursday, saying the Biden administration's decision was consistent with a long line of U.S. presidents backing oppressive Middle East leaders in the name of stability.
“I appreciate this honesty, that they say the situation is really bad but we have to do it because of other national interests,” Amr Magdi, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said of administration officials.
But “they should rethink what I would say is their short-sighted vision of security,” Magdi said.
The U.S. decision comes as Egypt has released some writers, journalists and other political detainees in recent weeks and months. But even as the U.S. decision on military aid neared, Egypt detained many other journalists and activists or their family members, including veteran newspaper publisher Hisham Kassem.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, called it "a missed opportunity to show the world that our commitment to advancing human rights and democracy is more than a talking point.”
The decision on how much of that portion of the rights-conditioned aid to give has become an annual assessment of the Egyptian government's retreats or 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.
This year, the amount of rights-conditioned aid was $320 million.
Of that, the State Department said the administration would withhold $85 million that it said it was legally obligated to keep back given Egypt's lack of progress on some specific rights, including regarding political prisoners. The administration intends to send $55 million of that to Taiwan and the rest to Ukraine.
For the other $235 million, however, the Biden administration this year is exercising a congressionally allowed waiver for U.S. national security interests to waive the rights restrictions and give that full amount, officials said.
The administration in the past two years had said it would hold back $130 million of the aid over Egypt's rights abuses.
U.S. officials said the decision announced Thursday did not signal that the U.S. believed Egypt had made progress on human rights.
They also said the U.S. would keep up its pressure on Sisi's government for reforms.
Sisi's military-backed government has ruled Egypt since 2013. Sisi overthrew an elected president whose Islamist background alarmed Egypt's military and some Gulf countries.
Freedom House rates Egypt with 18 points out of 100 points on a global freedom scale. Rights groups and the U.S. State Department cite arbitrary killings, torture and detention and allege systematic repression of civil society, free press and free expression.
Rights groups estimate the number of political prisoners in Egypt in the tens of thousands. Under U.S. pressure, the government this year and last released many of the detainees ahead of the U.S. decisions on military aid, and by last year started what it called a national dialogue.
However, U.S. officials said Thursday that Egypt had slowed the pace of releases of political prisoners while stepping up the pace of detentions. Rights groups said the government ultimately detained far more people than it released.
Those newly detained include a teacher's union advocate who had been a member of the national dialogue, his associates said Thursday.
The PEN America advocacy group and Amnesty International called Thursday for the release of another newly detained rights advocate, Kassem, 64, a longtime Egyptian news publisher.
Authorities arrested Kassem last month for alleged libel and slander — punishable in Egypt by prison — over criticism of the country's labor minister. Prosecutors referred him for “urgent trial,” which began Sept. 2, according to Amnesty.
Kassem for decades ran a series of news outlets that helped keep alive pockets of independent, free press in the country.
Like Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia, who was killed by Saudi officials in 2018, generations of foreign journalists came to Kassem for his insights on his country's political situation. International publications have quoted him on everything from the quality of Egypt's beer to decades of past cases of detentions of writers and others.
“It’s not safe to think in this part of the world," Kassem told one news organization, Newsweek, in 2001.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed.