By Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States plans to withhold $85 million in military aid to Egypt because of Cairo’s failure to meet U.S. conditions on freeing political prisoners and other issues, according to a congressional notification obtained by Reuters and a U.S. senator.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, urged the Biden administration to withhold $235 million more, and two other sources familiar with the matter said a decision on those funds was expected soon.
“We are consulting with Congress as we finalize our actions,” said a State Department spokesperson when asked about Murphy’s comments on the Senate floor.
Of the $85 million that is being withheld, $55 million will be redirected to Taiwan, and the remaining $30 million to Lebanon, a State Department letter to congressional committees laying out the foreign military financing showed.
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The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The administration rightly decided to withhold that first tranche – $85 million tied to the release of political prisoners – because there’s just no question there has not been enough progress,” Senator Murphy said.
“I would urge the administration to finish the job and withhold the full $320 million … until Egypt’s human rights and democracy record improves,” he added.
Rights groups have long accused Egypt of widespread human rights abuses under President Abdel Fattah al-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 United States has given Egypt about $1.3 billion a year in aid to buy U.S. weapons systems and services. This aid is largely the result of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Over the last decade or so, the U.S. Congress has made some aid subject to human rights conditions.
Under U.S. law, $85 million 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.
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A further $235 million is conditioned on Egypt meeting democracy and human rights requirements. These conditions, however, can be waived if the executive branch certifies this is in the U.S. national security interest.
There is a further loophole for the $235 million, which can be given to Egypt regardless if it is for “counterterrorism, border security and nonproliferation programs for Egypt.”
Last year, Washington allowed the full $75 million that was then contingent on progress on political detentions and allowed a further $95 million to go to Egypt under the counterterrorism, border security and non-proliferation exception.
This amounted to a decision to withhold $130 million, the same amount as the year before.
The $85 million withheld “is an important reversal from last year,” 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.”