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The human rights situation in Egypt is getting worse. Could withholding American military aid help?

The human rights situation in Egypt is getting worse. Could withholding American military aid help?
President Trump welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi to the White House on April 3, 2017. (Mark Wilson)

The pattern over the last five years has been consistent: The U.S. withholds military aid from Egypt, citing human rights concerns, only to eventually release the funds before any substantial improvement.

The first time was under President Obama’s administration in 2013. The United States suspended aid after Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted. Two years later, Obama restored the annual $1.3 billion in military financing, citing the need to help Egypt defeat Islamic State militants in the Sinai province.

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It happened again most recently under President Trump. After growing concern of repression under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi’s government, the Trump administration froze $195 million in military assistance to Cairo, only to release it at the end of July — 11 months later — despite the Egyptian government not meeting U.S. conditions.

The failure of two administrations to sustain pressure on Sisi’s government despite worsening repression on civil society suggests that American national security interests supersede human rights concerns, experts said.

“The U.S. cares more about security than human rights,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It also implies that suspending aid hasn’t really done anything to improve Egypt’s human rights situation.”

Since the late 1970s, the U.S. has viewed Egypt as an important and powerful ally in the Middle East. Part of maintaining that good-faith relationship has been to provide Egypt with military aid.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of foreign military funding after Israel. Every year the U.S. provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military assistance that it uses to buy equipment and conduct training.

A year ago, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson froze 15%, or $195 million, of the total annual military aid and conditioned its release on three points: Egypt must downgrade relations with North Korea, repeal a law that restricts the work of nongovernmental organizations and resolve the case of 43 NGO workers who were convicted in 2013 of working illegally.

Egypt and North Korea have had friendly diplomatic and military relations for some time, including weapons purchases from each other.

A small number of the NGO workers left the country after they were convicted but still face jail sentences if they return to Egypt. Egypt’s top appeal court ordered retrials for 16 people in April, but the outcome remains to be seen. The workers were employed by various unregistered NGOs, including U.S. and German organizations.

Less than a year after freezing the military aid, on July 25, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo lifted the restrictions without specifying what progress, if any, has been made.

Releasing military assistance to Egypt without seeing improvements in human rights taints the perception that the U.S. is serious in holding Egypt accountable, said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“Releasing the money removes pressure on the Egyptian government to meet conditions that were originally attached to that funding,” Miller said. “Egyptians will look back and see that this is further evidence Americans aren’t serious about human rights concerns. It hurts the idea of using assistance to leverage influence.”

The other time the U.S. froze military aid to Egypt was in 2013 over the bloody crackdown and repression of supporters of Morsi, who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He was ousted by the military after massive demonstrations by Egyptians concerned that Morsi was taking the country in an Islamist direction and failing to solve its many problems.

The Obama administration released that military aid in 2015 to help Egypt fight Islamic State militants who had established a toehold in the Sinai.

Since then the human rights situation in Egypt has worsened. Egyptian officials continue to lock up young activists who speak out against the government as tens of thousands of political prisoners sit in jail.

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“U.S. policymakers look at Sisi and say he may be a dictator but at least he’s taking care of Islamic State in the Sinai. They are willing to overlook human rights violation to maintain security,” said Amr Kotb, advocacy director at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The U.S. views human rights and national security as mutually exclusive.”

The next time the U.S. decides to withhold funds, it will have less impact, rights advocates and experts warn.

“The administration fails to understand that the status of human rights in Egypt has a direct impact on U.S. national security interests, including counter-terrorism,” Miller said.

Miller said there have been examples in which withholding aid has been effective in the short term, such as pressuring Egypt to release detained Egyptian Americans.

“Military assistance holds are like sanctions in that you’re denying something with the hope that it changes behavior,” Miller said.

“It’s not instantaneous. Obama and Trump have backed down from assistance holds and lifted them before they could have an effect,” he said. “It reduces incentives from Egypt. They don’t believe our stance, and it prevents more significant change.”

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