By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee said on Friday he had asked the U.S. State Department to pause a portion of military aid to Egypt conditioned on human rights criteria.
The announcement came a week after federal prosecutors announced charges against the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, tied partly to allegations that he had accepted bribes in exchange for wielding his influence to aid Egypt’s government.
Menendez denies wrongdoing and has pleaded not guilty.
“Congress needs more clarity from the State Department on how concerns about the treatment of political prisoners, journalists, as well as the rule of law are being tackled in our bilateral relationship,” Representative Gregory Meeks said in a statement.
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Meeks did not mention the charges against Menendez in his statement.
Washington has long provided Egypt with large amounts of military and other aid, ever since the Arab world’s most populous nation signed a peace deal with neighbouring Israel in 1979.
Much of the aid has been withheld in recent years over concerns about human rights abuses under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, including political arrests, torture and enforced disappearances.
But President Joe Biden’s government announced this month it had decided to waive human rights restrictions on $235 million of the aid, citing security benefits to the United States from sending it. It is currently withholding $85 million of the aid, a fraction of the $1.3 billion a year allocated for Egypt.
The Biden announcement prompted objections from some members of Congress because of human rights concerns.
Meeks and the other Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House foreign relations committees have until Saturday, the end of this month, to decide whether to exercise a hold on the $235 million.
Sisi denies there are political prisoners in Egypt. He says stability and security are paramount and authorities are promoting rights by trying to provide basic needs such as jobs and housing.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democratic Senate rules forced Menendez to step down as chairman of the foreign relations panel because he faced felony charges. He was replaced by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin.
The indictment had prompted calls in Congress for a rethink on the Egypt aid, or even an investigation.
Cardin said on Thursday at a first press conference since becoming committee chairman that he was still looking at the aid and had not decided whether to use his new authority to place a “hold.”