Western media reported last week that the US administration has decided to withhold part of its military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns. Though no official announcement has been made, a US State Department spokesperson told Reuters on 14 September that the Biden administration will withhold $130 million of the $1.3 billion of military aid given to Cairo each year.
Reuters cited the US State Department as saying that “US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will move forward with the use of $130 million if the government of Egypt affirmatively addresses specific human rights-related conditions.”
Other media reports said the conditions set by the Biden administration for the release of the blocked aid include Egypt dropping a case against NGOs and foreign civil society workers — including 16 Americans — who face charges, dating back 2011, of receiving unauthorised foreign funds.
Gamal Zahran, a political science professor and former MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Biden administration’s decision had less to do with human rights than dropping the case in which American citizens are defendants.
Two weeks ago, on 30 August, Ali Mokhtar, the investigating judge appointed by the Cairo Court of Appeals to look into the case, announced that the charges being pressed against four foreign NGOs had been been dropped for lack of evidence, bringing the number of NGOs now removed from the charge sheet to 67.
“Charges filed against 63 NGOs and asset freezes and travel bans on their staff have been dropped in the wake of four judicial rulings issued in the last two years,” said Mokhtar. “With this latest decision, a total of 67 entities and 180 persons have been acquitted.”
News that the US had opted to withhold part its military assistance to Egypt was welcomed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood activist Mohamed Sultan praised the decision in an article in the Washington Post on 15 September, and demanded more action by Washington to pressurise Egypt on human rights.
On 17 September, a US court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Soltan against former Egyptian prime minister Hazem Al-Beblawi. Sultan had alleged that he was beaten and tortured after being detained following the dispersal of Brotherhood sit-ins in 2013. Al-Beblawi, who was the prime minister at the time, said in a TV interview with Sada Al-Balad channel on 19 September that the US court had dismissed Sultan’s case as groundless and that his torture allegations were no more than propaganda.
Muslim Brotherhood television channels broadcasting from Turkey hailed the US administration’s decision, an unsurprising response, says political analyst Gamal Zahran, given “the Muslim Brotherhood is in love with the Democratic Party and people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.”
What does the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood want from Joe Biden? is a study released last week under by the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), argues that the Brotherhood has been trying since Biden came to office to secure his administration’s support for the release of Brotherhood members involved in terrorist activities. “They exerted the same pressure when Barack Obama was in office, trying to introduce themselves as moderate and defenders of human rights, but at the end he failed,” said the study.
Leftist human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), which echoes the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric, told the US media that they were disappointed by the decision and would have liked to have seen $300 million cut from military assistance to Egypt. Some Democratic Party lawmakers also saw the decision as a compromise, acknowledging that it may disappoint some activists but was nonetheless more human-rights friendly than actions taken by the previous administration.
Bloomberg news agency published an article last week pointing out that “the growth of the Egyptian economy has made American aid less critical for Cairo” while an opinion article published in The Hill on 7 September accused Joe Biden’s Democratic Party of harming America’s relations with key partners like Egypt.
The Hill article, written by former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy Simone noted that “Egypt is facing massive security challenges — both internally and externally — and the United States needs Egypt to continue as a key regional leader in maintaining peace and stability, which are in America’s long-term interest.
“Congressional Democrats must abandon their anti-Egypt rhetoric and acknowledge that Cairo has taken a leadership role in addressing a number of important regional security challenges, and so it should be encouraged and supported, not threatened with a cut in aid.”
Zahran agrees with Bloomberg that the sum being withheld is insignificant to Egypt.
“The Biden administration is being cautious. It wants to please the Democratic Party, media and human rights organisations, and at the same time it does not want to alienate Egypt,” said Zahran. “US assistance has played a substantial role since the early 1980s in modernising the Egyptian economy, infrastructure and army, but over the years Egypt has managed to diversify its sources of funding and is far less dependent on conditioned assistance.”
Khaled Qandil, the deputy chairman of the Wafd Party, said “Egypt’s economic progress in recent years means a cut by $130 million will have little impact. “But is not good that the US uses the military or economic assistance for political reasons or uses the radical agenda of leftist human rights organisations to interfere in internal affairs,” said Qandil in an article on 18 September.
Mahmoud Khalaf, a strategic expert with Nasser Military Academy, stresses that US military assistance is far from being a one way street. “America gets a lot from Egypt in return,” says Khalaf, “in the form of military facilities, including priority for American warships crossing the Suez Canal.”
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement on 5 September saying the US, along with forces from partner nations, is taking part in Exercise Bright Star 2021 at Mohamed Naguib Military Base. “Exercise Bright Star builds on the strategic security relationship between Egypt and the US, which plays a leading role in regional security and efforts to combat the spread of extremism,” the embassy said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly