U.S. President Joe Biden repeatedly has called the battle between democracy and autocracy the single most important struggle of the 21st century, but these words increasingly ring hollow as his administration continues to provide billions in military aid and weapons sales, as well as political support, to authoritarian regimes within the Middle East and North Africa. If the Biden administration is serious about democracy, it must rethink its approach, including whether it should continue providing military assistance to Egypt.
The United States provides the Egyptian military with $1.3 billion in foreign military financing annually and, with only a few exceptions, has done so regularly since 1987. The United States provides this military aid despite the multitude of human rights abuses and international law violations attributed to Egyptian authorities, including its military and state security forces. The U.S. State Department’s most recent annual human rights report for Egypt details, among other violations, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, and arbitrary detention. In 2020, Congress sought to reshape U.S. military support for Egypt and conditioned $300 million of aid on addressing its human rights crisis. But while the Egyptian government has not made meaningful changes to strengthen human rights or hold human rights violators accountable, the Biden administration has refused to withhold the full $300 million despite sharp criticism from members of Congress, human rights groups, and civil society organizations.
Another Missed Opportunity for Human Rights
On Sept. 14, the Biden administration announced it would withhold only $130 million of the conditioned $300 million of foreign military financing budgeted to Egypt. This is the second consecutive year that the administration decided to withhold only $130 million, or ten percent of the total $1.3 billion. Several members of Congress and numerous human rights organizations called on the administration to withhold the entire $300 million due to Egypt’s continued human rights abuses and the government’s unwillingness to address them. Following this year’s announcement, they again expressed their frustration. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said, “[The] decision to hold some but not all conditioned aid was a missed opportunity to stand up for human rights.”
Last September, the administration similarly withheld only $130 million in foreign military financing, but then placed new restrictions on the conditioned aid. Rather than invoking a national security waiver to release the funds—as numerous administrations have done in previous years—the State Department sidestepped Congress by weakening legislative requirements that required withholding military aid until the Egyptian government took clear steps to strengthen the rule of law, implement reforms to protect basic freedoms, and hold its security forces accountable for human rights violations. Instead of insisting that Egypt meet these requirements, the State Department conditioned the aid on ending the unjust detention of (or dropping charges against) 16 political prisoners and closing Case No. 173, a decade-old case that targeted Egyptian civil society. Egypt failed to do either, and the State Department eventually decided to reprogram these funds in late January 2022. That same week, however, the administration allowed a $2.5 billion weapons sale to Egypt to proceed.
While this year’s decision was a missed opportunity for human rights, it also undermines the administration’s democracy agenda, erodes trust in U.S. policymakers, and creates double standards. Why must the United States take measures against authoritarianism in China, Iran, and Hungary, even while it provides political support and billions of military aid to authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates? These double standards provide adversaries with fodder for criticizing U.S. policies, while reinforcing the misguided notion that policymakers must “balance” national security concerns with human rights or elevate narrow security interests over broader interests, including democracy, human rights, and a commitment to the rule of law.
The State Department’s decision-making process was as disappointing as the outcome. When justifying the decision to allocate $170 million of the conditioned military aid, Sec. of State Antony Blinken determined that the Egyptian government had made “clear and consistent progress” on releasing political prisoners and strengthening due process rights. The State Department used this determination to release $75 million of the conditioned aid, citing the release of “some 500 political prisoners” and the launch of a National Dialogue with opposition groups earlier this year. As in 2021, the remaining $95 million will fund counterterrorism, border security, and non-proliferation cooperation.
It is difficult to fathom how the State Department arrived at this conclusion. Egyptian authorities have arrested hundreds more political prisoners than they have released and renewed the detention of thousands of individuals – many of whom are guilty only of peacefully expressing their political opinions. Pointing to a National Dialogue that has yet to begin its substantive sessions, and that is not expected to create meaningful change, as evidence of progress is baffling. Few true opposition parties remain in Egypt. Those that do have not yet committed to participating in the National Dialogue, nor is there any guarantee that the dialogue will lead to a reform of the country’s pre-trial detention law, as Blinken asserts. Likewise, there is simply no indication that Egyptian authorities have improved due process rights. To the contrary, Egyptian officials continue to disregard nearly all human rights standards, including due process rights, as reported by human rights organizations, policy groups, and UN bodies. Even political prisoners that are released are often re-arrested a short time later on similarly specious charges.
The National Dialogue and Political Prisoners
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced the National Dialogue on April 26. Presented as an inclusive political process that would allow for national reconciliation, the National Dialogue has yet to hold a substantive session. The Board of Trustees overseeing this process has met a handful of times to establish committees and appoint rapporteurs, but the actual dialogue will begin—at the earliest—later this month. Opposition figures and human rights groups remain hesitant to join the National Dialogue over fear of giving this highly-orchestrated political production a veneer of legitimacy. At the same time, they worry that, by not participating, they will cede even more ground to Sisi, who might then argue that the opposition is unreasonable and refuses to compromise. Opposition parties also want the government to release more political prisoners before the dialogue starts.
Since the announcement of the National Dialogue, the Egyptian government has arrested far more political prisoners than it has released. For example, the Committee for Justice has documented only 332 releases, compared to 950 cases of arbitrary detention. Other groups estimate that there have been closer to 700 releases and more than 1,000 new arrests. The government also has kept at least 4,000 more imprisoned through prolonged pre-trial detention, though some Egyptian human rights groups put the number closer to 6,000.
More importantly, either number is a fraction of the 60,000 political prisoners that the regime has arrested since a military coup brought Sisi to power in 2013. But instead of committing to a reasonable review and coordinated release of these prisoners, the Egyptian government has haphazardly freed some while Sisi maintains that there are no political prisoners in Egypt. As a case in point, on Sept. 15, the day after Blinken’s announcement, Sisi approved the release of 46 political prisoners, ranging from lawyers to journalists to soccer fans; the same day, an Egyptian court ruled against releasing political activist Mohamed Adel, despite his serving more than four years of pre-trial detention without trial.
The Sept. 15 releases included noted human rights attorney and labor activist Haitham Mohamadein. Egyptian authorities arrested and forcibly disappeared Mohamadein in May 2019, accusing him of aiding a terrorist group and spreading false news. Mohamadein spent the next two years in prison without trial as prosecutors renewed his pre-trial detention without presenting any evidence to support claims against him. After spending two years in pre-trial detention, the maximum allowed under Egyptian law, a court ordered Mohamadein’s release on March 8. Instead of releasing him, even as his health declined due to medical neglect, prosecutors simply rotated Mohamadein to a new case and applied the same baseless charges to a different set of circumstances.
Mohamadein is hardly the only political prisoner to experience medical neglect or abuse in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons. Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent political activist who has spent much of the last decade imprisoned, recently told his family that he expects to die in prison as he continues his hunger strike past 170 days. Fattah became a British citizen in April, but Egyptian officials have not yet granted British officials even a consular visit. At least 32 people have died in Egyptian prisons this year alone, where state-sponsored prison torture is rampant. Earlier this year, Egyptian officials claimed that prisoners who recorded the effects of their torture inflicted this harm upon themselves and charged them with spreading false news.
The National Human Rights Strategy and Due Process Rights
Due process rights remain all but nonexistent for political activists, human rights defenders, and other Egyptians critical of the government. Earlier this month, Amnesty International published a report concluding that Egypt’s human rights crisis has worsened since the government announced its National Human Rights Strategy a year ago. Showing the strategy to be an exercise in deflection and concealment, Amnesty concludes: “Authorities in Egypt have shown no genuine will to acknowledge, let alone address, the country’s deep-rooted human rights crisis.” Egyptian media criticized the strategy during its launch, as it sought no input from civil society or the public, and effectively blamed Egyptian citizens for state repression, while lauding constitutional safeguards and legal protections the government routinely ignores.
Instead of improving due process rights, the government routinely covers up abuses, such as the abduction, forced disappearance, and suspicious death of economist Ayman Hadhoud, who died in state custody under mysterious circumstances with evidence of torture on his body. It also attacks those who dare to report these abuses. Indeed, the government’s systematic persecution of journalists continues. Reporters Without Borders notes that while Egyptian officials have released eight journalists in the last six months, 22 others remain imprisoned.
Speaking out about detention and state-sponsored abuses can also lead to retaliation. On Sept. 17, Egyptian authorities rearrested political activist Sherif al-Rouby after he spoke about the trauma he endured during detention and his struggles to find employment to support his family after his release. Al-Rouby was detained from December 2020 to May 2022. This is the fourth time that he has been arrested and detained, but officials have yet to bring his case to trial. Officials charged al-Rouby with joining a terrorist organization and spreading false news, which are the same baseless charges they used against him during his latest arrest. Seven leading Egyptian human rights organizations issued a statement calling for al-Rouby’s release, noting that his rearrest was a threat to all those recently released.
Even those who are released, such as Al Jazeera journalist Ahmed al-Najdi, find themselves free due to political machinations and not due process. Egyptian officials released al-Najdi on Sept. 19, only days after Sisi returned from his first trip to Qatar since becoming president in 2014. Al-Najdi spent more than two years in pre-trial detention after authorities arrested him while he vacationed in Egypt in August 2020. Accused of belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading false news, prison authorities refused to provide al-Najdi with healthcare for chronic medical conditions. During his two years of detention, prosecutors only allowed al-Najdi to appear before the judiciary three times, without permitting him to make a statement.
In its briefing on the decision to release $170 million of conditioned military aid, the State Department provided the following assessment of Egypt’s human rights record:
The Secretary did make the determination that Egypt has made clear and consistent progress…[through] unprecedented numbers of releases, hundreds of prisoners this year; the establishment of the presidential pardon committee; and the efforts to set up a national political dialogue that is expected to address some of these very issues. That includes pre-trial detention reform, among other social, political, and economic issues.
These assertions do not hold up to scrutiny. Egypt has made little meaningful progress in addressing valid human rights concerns. Instead, it has launched a series of initiatives that appear to be reforms, while reinforcing practices that result in systemic and widespread human rights abuses. The Biden administration’s acceptance of this disingenuous narrative undermines its democracy agenda, as well as its credibility with countless Egyptians who continue to suffer under Sisi’s authoritarian rule. While the administration is unlikely to do a full review of the $1.3 billion it provides Egypt in military aid, it should at least withhold the $300 million that Congress has conditioned on human rights improvements which Egypt clearly is not making.