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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

US to withhold $85m military aid to Egypt over political prisoners, rights

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Al Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, Egypt, in January 2023 [File: Khaled Desouki/Pool via AP Photo]

The United States plans to withhold $85m in military aid to Egypt owing to Cairo’s failure to uphold US conditions on freeing political prisoners and other human rights issues, a US senator said, with some of the withheld funds being redirected to Taiwan.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, also urged US President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday to withhold $235m more in military aid for what he described as Egypt’s “egregious human rights record”.

Two other sources familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency that a decision on the future of the $235m was expected soon.

“The administration rightly decided to withhold that first tranche – $85m tied to the release of political prisoners – because there’s just no question there has not been enough progress,” Murphy said.

“I would urge the administration to finish the job and withhold the full $320m … until Egypt’s human rights and democracy record improves,” he said.

Of the $85m that is being withheld from Egypt, $55m will be redirected to Taiwan, and the remaining $30m to Lebanon, according to a US State Department letter to congressional committees laying out foreign military financing.

The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On the floor of the US Senate on Tuesday, Murphy said that Egypt had jailed more political prisoners than it had released since 2022.

“Egypt has released more than 1,600 political prisoners since early 2022. That’s good news,” Murphy said.

“During that same time, they have jailed 5,000 more. So for every political prisoner that Egypt releases, three more are jailed. That’s one step forward, and three steps back,” he said.

“That’s not the kind of ‘clear and consistent progress’ in releasing political prisoners that the law requires. The administration was right to withhold the $85m.”

Human rights groups have long accused Egypt of widespread human rights abuses under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, including torture and enforced disappearances.

Egyptian authorities have taken some steps since late 2021 that they say aim to address rights, including launching a human rights strategy and ending a state of emergency, but critics have dismissed the measures as largely cosmetic.

Some high-profile detainees have been pardoned or released, but activists say new detentions have outnumbered releases and that thousands of political prisoners remain in jail, with restrictions on free speech as tight as ever.

For decades, the US has given Egypt about $1.3bn a year in military aid to buy US weapons systems and services. More recently, the US Congress has made some aid to Egypt subject to human rights conditions.

The announced withholding of military aid is significant, said Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy rights group.

“But if the administration withholds less than it has the last two years it would in essence be saying to al-Sisi that it believes the Egyptian government has improved its rights record, which is just not true,” Binder said.

Under US law, $85m in military aid is contingent on Egypt “making clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners, providing detainees with due process of law, and preventing the intimidation and harassment of American citizens”.

These conditions cannot be waived by the executive branch.

A further $235m is conditioned on Egypt meeting democracy and human rights requirements. These conditions, however, can be waived if the executive branch certifies that it is in the US national security interest to do so.

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