“Be a goldfish,” the fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso famously tells a member of his team, suggesting that the fish’s supposedly fleeting powers of recall (“Got a 10-second memory”) can be a strength. That may be good advice to an athlete needing to put the distracting memory of a failure behind them. It is not an approach that the U.S. government should feel comfortable taking to one of its thorniest human rights challenges.
In its Sept. 14 decision on providing U.S. military financing to Egypt, the Biden administration seemed to forget or disregard the recent past in ways that reduce any chance of inducing improvements in that country’s dire human rights situation. Congress has rightly linked these issues by annually conditioning some of these funds on human-rights progress. Conditioned assistance has helped change government behavior in other circumstances, such as in the western Balkans; the fact that Egyptian authorities have sometimes anticipated or followed the annual decision about this portion of U.S. assistance with at least minor steps toward progress suggests the possibility of similar leverage in Egypt, too. But real progress seems doubtful when the Biden administration’s decision did little to address the memory of past concessions that have drained U.S. credibility on these issues; undermined a previously-established set of human rights criteria by substituting another; and put no emphasis on accountability for the Egyptian security forces’ past and ongoing abuses.
The annual decision about whether to provide military financing for Egypt always draws attention, even though the usual result is to provide the funds. But then-candidate Joe Biden raised expectations that his administration would drive a harder bargain to promote human rights, saying that there would be “no more blank checks” for Egypt’s president. More broadly, the U.S. posture toward autocratic partners like Egypt offers a key test of how far the Biden administration will go in “putting human rights at the center of foreign policy,” beyond merely rolling back Donald Trump’s worst excesses. Egyptian activists have made clear that the decision on military financing “has immediate real-life consequences for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians whose lives and security hang in the balance.” Continued reports of how torture in Egyptian prisons fuels the Islamic State’s recruitment give a direct counter-terrorism rationale for U.S. concern.
With these stakes in mind, the Sept. 14 decision was deeply disappointing. Of the $1.3 billion in foreign military financing that Congress appropriated for Egypt to use by the end of this fiscal year, Congress conditioned $300 million on whether Egyptian authorities are “taking sustained and effective steps” to improve human rights-related conditions on six specific fronts. They are not doing so, as the Biden administration has acknowledged. Human Rights First and many other organizations had thus urged the administration not to provide the funds. But the State Department largely released the funds nonetheless, using one of two workarounds in the law to deliver some of the conditioned money now ($170 million) and to put more time on the clock for Egypt to unlock the remainder ($130 million).
Speaking soon after the announcement about how the Biden administration promotes human rights generally, a senior State Department official explained that it would refrain from taking steps “that would be heralded, that may receive great acclaim, but that in our estimation wouldn’t help us achieve our objective.” The U.S. government is right to focus on what will actually work to promote human rights, but the dismal results of waiving the restrictions on Egypt’s military financing for so many years would seem to bring its judgment on that count into question. At least three elements of the U.S. government’s approach need to change – effectively replacing the current approach with one more conscious of what has gone before – if these conditions are to have an effect.
First, the Biden administration needs to convincingly signal to the Egyptian government that something has changed in how the U.S. government will apply its human rights commitments in hard cases, given how previous administrations’ handling of this issue damaged the U.S. government’s credibility. Years of waivers have made clear to Egypt that the workarounds, not the conditions, are by far the more real and tangible element of Congress’s legislative scheme. On two previous occasions, the Obama and Trump administrations did temporarily hold back a subset of the conditioned funding pending improvements. But they both ran out of patience and released the withheld funds without obtaining or locking in those improvements, either because growing instability ostensibly made it untenable to continue pressing Egypt, or because new U.S. decision-makers had taken office who decided to change tack.
Permanently withholding this year’s funds would have shown that the window for getting one year’s funds does eventually close, even while it remains open for the next year. U.S. officials may have signaled a resolve to hold the line on conditionality in private discussions with their Egyptian counterparts, but the emptiness of some of their public claims has been counterproductive. The administration has suggested that its use of one statutory workaround rather than another to provide the funds sends a meaningful signal, but this is a bureaucratic distinction without a difference; the result is the same. It has also claimed that $130 million was the maximum amount it could withhold, due to limits on unspent balances, but this is only the case if the administration was never considering simply allowing the funds to expire. The Egyptian government and its lobbyists know all this, and they are unlikely to conclude from these statements that the U.S. approach has changed in a way they need to worry about.
Second, the U.S. government cannot simply cease to mention the conditions it had previously been offering. Congress established a set of six conditions for this year’s funding, which are nearly identical to the conditions it imposed in previous years and which cover among other things steps toward strengthening the rule of law, protecting freedom of expression, and releasing political prisoners. It can be argued whether these conditions are exactly the right ones, but they are reasonable and ask for steps that are clearly within the Egyptian government’s power.
Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken, like Secretary Rex Tillerson before him, used the legal workarounds to substitute a different set of requirements just as the funds were about to expire. As a condition of receiving the last $130 million, Secretary Blinken reportedly asked Egypt that bogus criminal charges be withdrawn in a specific list of cases, on a timeframe that has not been disclosed. That is an important goal, and hopefully the request will prove successful. But absent more from the U.S. side, why would Egyptian authorities believe that this pattern won’t continue to play out in their favor – wait out the annual cycle, do something far less than originally requested, get all the funds anyway, and repeat? The administration can use the statutory workarounds to substitute its own, more limited criteria for those Congress has set, but doing so weakens the incentive for Egypt to make real progress.
Consistency is especially vital when progress on the covered topics is so easily erased. In the early 2000s, U.S. aid conditionality to Serbia and Croatia made a major contribution toward securing the arrest and transfer of specific U.N.-indicted war criminals whom Serbian and Croatian authorities were sheltering. But these conditions were like a one-way ratchet: When a given fugitive was arrested and transferred to The Hague in partial fulfillment of the conditions, the ratchet was irreversibly turned. In Egypt, in contrast, the U.S. government may well have to buy the same reform twice, given the propensity of Egyptian authorities to drop farcical charges against one human rights defender while bringing them against another. Congress’s certification scheme anticipates this problem by insisting on “sustained” steps that “are in addition to steps taken during the previous calendar year” – if the administration would adhere to the conditions.
Third, U.S. pressure needs to include a focus on accountability for past abuses by Egyptian security forces. Congress has been right to include “hold[ing] Egyptian security forces accountable, including officers credibly alleged to have violated human rights,” among its certification criteria. There is little reason to expect ongoing practices of extrajudicial killing and prison torture will stop without steps that would break the pattern of impunity, but accountability does not appear to have found its way into the administration’s substitute conditions.
There are other policy tools the U.S. government could and should use to seek progress on this front as well. The State and Treasury Departments have used targeted sanctions and visa restriction authorities like the Global Magnitsky program and the “Khashoggi ban” to spur accountability for human rights abuse and corruption around the world. As they have done in allied and adversary countries alike, U.S. officials could impose these sanctions on one or more Egyptian officials or institutions that are credibly linked to egregious or emblematic abuses, and press authorities to genuinely investigate and prosecute those allegations. Doing so would offer a meaningful test of the willingness of Egyptian authorities to begin changing course – much as using or failing to use tools such as these offers a meaningful test of U.S. willingness to make accountability a priority.
Having a perfect memory may not be compatible with diplomacy in the real world. But when the executive branch keeps playing the part of the goldfish, it is vital that Congress be alongside to play the less-forgetful elephant. The unchecked flow of U.S. arms to a dictatorship that persistently refuses to change its ways is not compatible with U.S. values or interests. In that sense, the debate over conditionality is not just about effectiveness but about priorities, and the extent to which one priority will or will not inform another. Without congressional restrictions, there is little doubt that the executive branch would have simply provided all of this year’s military financing to Egypt, pronounced it “routine,” and insisted the act in no way diminished the U.S. commitment to human rights, much as it did in the February sale to Egypt of $197 million in naval ordnance.
Given the growing evidence that the Biden administration, like its predecessors, will keep making room “at the center of foreign policy” for arms sales to unreconstructed autocrats, Congress needs to do more to insist on a choice. It should subject a greater share of Egypt’s annual military financing to a set of consistent human-rights conditions in upcoming years. It should dramatically pare back the waivers and other workarounds that successive administrations have abused to make those conditions hollow. And it should make clear that this aspect of the complex U.S.-Egypt relationship must either improve or come to an end.
Image: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on May 26, 2021. (Photo by ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)