The Egypt Human Rights Caucus would like a word with President Joe Biden. The group, which was formed in January 2021 on the 10th anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, declared in September of this year its approval of the Biden administration’s decision to withhold $130 million in foreign military financing to Egypt for the second year in a row due to the country’s grim human rights record. However, the caucus also adopted a more critical tone, stating, “While we applaud the administration for this decision, we are concerned that they continue to disregard congressional intent, which undermines their efforts to promote a more stable and rights-respecting Egypt.”
This particular confrontation, which has pitted the intent of Congress against successive administrations that are insolubly wedded to maintaining the US-Egypt relationship, has been building for many years. There remains a constituency for human rights in the US House and Senate (bitter struggles over domestic American politics and the future of US democracy notwithstanding), and some members of Congress are now trying to rectify the disconnect between US human rights policy and the so-called “realpolitik” that excuses the predations of a US-friendly tyrant. But can they make a big difference in US foreign policy toward Egypt, in what is a crucial battle for the future of US Middle East policy?
The More Things Change…
Disappointment with the Biden administration’s record on human rights has been abundant, with much criticism focused on the administration’s failure to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the state-sanctioned murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Egypt has proved a persistent disappointment as well, especially under the regime of current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Cairo has enjoyed the benefit of more than $51 billion in US taxpayer-funded military aid since the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. Altogether, the United States has provided approximately $85 billion in bilateral assistance to Egypt since 1946, making Washington far and away the biggest aid donor to Egypt. Cairo has ignored any implication of a quid pro quo agreement, and now the United States is being forced to weigh the consequences of a generous policy that has helped subsidize abuses on a large scale.
The end of major US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided US policymakers with an opportunity to reassess whether military access and counterterrorism cooperation is worth the cost of political support to an abusive regime like Egypt’s.
The law of diminishing returns has kicked in, lessening the value of the military-security relationship. The end of major US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided US policymakers with an opportunity to reassess whether military access and counterterrorism cooperation is worth the cost of such extensive financial and political support to an abusive regime like Egypt’s. But so far, the dead weight of precedent appears to be winning over the officials who are currently in charge of American foreign policy. Bilateral relations with Egypt remain largely the same as they have been for decades now, without reflection or strategic adjustment. It is this stasis that some in Congress are trying to change.
A Long Time Coming
Current congressional dissatisfaction with the direction of US policy on Egypt stems mainly from the 2013 military coup General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, now president, led. The regime’s slaughter of hundreds of civilians at overwhelmingly peaceful protest camps in 2013—commonly referred to as the Rabaa massacre—was a rude awakening for many in Congress, and for some in the Obama administration, a warning that Egypt had taken a sharply repressive turn.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration refused to call the 2013 military ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi a coup, likely because a statement to that effect would mandate cuts in military assistance. Then Secretary of State John Kerry proved particularly obtuse, stating just two weeks before the Rabaa massacre that the military was simply “restoring democracy” when it acted to remove the president, having been “asked to intervene by millions and millions of people.” He added, rather surprisingly, that, “The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment—so far.” (Kerry proved no less tone deaf in his capacity as Biden’s climate envoy this year when he engineered awarding the hosting duties for the UN’s COP27 international climate conference to Egypt over the objections of both Egyptian and international human rights advocates. At a Cairo press conference in September, Kerry lauded Egypt’s renown as the “mother of the world” and proclaimed that it has “a chance to be the nation that helps rescue civilization and to protect it for many generations to come.”)
The Trump administration likewise largely turned a blind eye to the abuses of the Sisi regime. Although Trump’s State Department cited Egypt’s human rights violations and its ties with North Korea in justifying a decision to withhold $195 million in military assistance and to cut another $96 million in 2017, much of this aid was later restored. The administration’s behind-the-scenes pressure was instrumental in forcing Egypt to vacate Case 173, under which dozens of foreign and domestic pro-democracy NGOs and their employees (including a number of American citizens) were prosecuted for supposedly operating without official permission. Nevertheless, Trump himself made clear where he stood on the Sisi regime. The Egyptian president was invited to the White House in 2019, and Trump famously called Sisi his “favorite dictator” while waiting for him to show up at a G7 meeting that same year.
President Biden tweeted during the 2020 presidential campaign that on his watch there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’” But in practice, Biden’s record has been thoroughly disappointing. Early this year, the administration announced a $2.5 billion arms sale to Egypt, America’s “important strategic partner in the Middle East.” Securitization of US Middle East policy thus remains unchecked as far as Cairo is concerned.
Mounting Opposition in Congress
These persistent efforts by successive administrations to shield the Egyptian regime from the consequences of its turn toward greater repression—as well as efforts by consecutive presidents and their state departments to ignore or skirt the law—appear to have contributed significantly to the erosion of support for Egypt within Congress.
Congress established a requirement that $300 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package must be subject to human rights conditions, meaning that the administration would be required to withhold that amount if Egypt were found to be in violation of certain human rights benchmarks.
In January 2021, Representatives Don Beyer (D-Virginia) and Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) formed the Egypt Human Rights Caucus to draw attention to the continued abuses of human rights under Sisi and the US role in supporting his regime. Although relatively small in number, the caucus has brought an outsized voice to the debate.
More importantly, Congress established a requirement that $300 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package must be subject to human rights conditions, meaning that the administration would be required to withhold that amount if Egypt were found to be in violation of certain human rights benchmarks. However, this requirement was subject to a national security waiver if the administration determined that it was in the US national interest to disburse the aid. The conditionality of a portion of aid to Egypt has proven to be an annual bone of contention between the administration and Congress.
In 2021, faced with Egypt’s continued failure to make improvements on human rights, the Biden administration tried to split the difference: it withheld $130 million of the $300 million subject to human rights conditions, allowing the remaining $170 million to be released, but restricting its use to counterterrorism, border security, and non-proliferation purposes. Predictably, this “compromise” satisfied no one, with human rights advocates and congressional critics attacking the step as a half measure that skirted the clear intent of the law, while the Egyptian government was angry that the funds—which it has long considered an entitlement—would be withheld for any reason at all.
In 2022, the administration tried a similar gambit, announcing on September 14 that it would again withhold $130 million of the $300 million that is subject to human rights conditions. However, the State Department said that $95 million of the remaining $170 million would proceed under the same counterterrorism, border security, and nonproliferation exception cited in 2021, while the other $75 million would be transferred due to the Egyptian government’s having released some 500 political prisoners.
Once again the decision was attacked by human rights advocates in Congress, as well as by outside experts and activists, who pointed out that acknowledging the release of a few hundred political prisoners conveniently ignored the fact that some 60,000 others remain in Egyptian jails. In addition, the administration was unable to point to Egyptian progress on any of the numerous other abhorrent human rights abuses it routinely employs, including torture, the denial of medical care to prisoners, heavy restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, all of which have been documented by the State Department itself. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, blocked the $75 million in October, citing both the law and “deplorable” conditions political prisoners face in Egypt.
The Biden administration and Congress are now engaged in arcane legislative maneuvering to get around each other’s objections.
The Biden administration and Congress are now engaged in arcane legislative maneuvering to get around each other’s objections. The State Department insists that cuts of more than 10 percent to appropriated foreign military funding are prohibited by Section 7019 of the 2021 Appropriations Act, and that $130 million is therefore the maximum amount it can eliminate from the $1.3 billion Egypt appropriation. Skeptical lawmakers—supported by numerous human rights organizations—counter that Section 7041 of the act contains an exception for cases where serious human rights violations come into the picture. And some in Congress are working to ensure that Egypt is exempted from the Section 7019 rule altogether, in order to eliminate any possible ambiguity.
The Big Picture: Is It Worth It?
All this legislative squabbling, however, belies the bigger issue: whether the US-Egypt bilateral relationship remains an irreplaceable strategic asset to the United States, and if so, whether maintaining it is worth the cost.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) has been particularly forceful and eloquent on this issue. During Senate floor remarks in September, Murphy noted that the Appropriations Act “lays out that in order to receive this money Egypt needs to allow NGOs and the media to operate freely, protect women and religious minorities, hold security forces accountable when they violate human rights, and investigate and prosecute these cases of forced disappearances. Again, the record is overwhelmingly clear that things in Egypt have gotten worse on these fronts, not better over the last year.”
Murphy’s benchmarks do not appear to be shared by the Biden administration, which seems to have no such standards, at least none that have been made public. This stance is likely meant to preserve maximum flexibility when it comes time to make decisions on aid. And the administration has shown every indication of going along with Sisi’s farcical “national dialogue” on his government’s human rights strategy, which appears to be mainly aimed at shielding the regime from international criticism rather than advancing a genuine rights agenda.
As for arguments that Egypt will slow or halt cooperation with the United States if some funding is cut (a view frequently espoused by certain think tanks and the military), Murphy had a sharp reply. He noted that on other occasions when the United States withheld aid, “our relationship didn’t change. Egyptians still cooperated with us on counterterrorism….Why? Because all of these areas in which we engage are beneficial for the Egyptians.” This is true; Egypt does what it does in the region to serve its own interests, regardless of US aid.
Whether Egypt is a good partner on other issues is increasingly open to doubt. In recent years, Cairo has moved closer to Russia, agreeing to purchase advanced SU-35 fighter jets and other sophisticated weapons.
Whether Egypt is a good partner on other issues is increasingly open to doubt. In recent years, Cairo has moved closer to Russia, agreeing to purchase advanced SU-35 fighter jets (in spite of warnings from the Trump administration) and other sophisticated weapons, including MiG-29M2 fighter aircraft, helicopters, and ballistic missiles. Cairo has also found itself siding with Russia in Libya, at one point reportedly allowing Russian special forces to stage operations from Egyptian soil. This decision has put Cairo on the opposite side of the conflict from the United States, which supports the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. And on Ukraine, Egypt has proved reluctant to condemn the Russian invasion, in large part because of deepening Egyptian-Russian political and military ties.
Serious Consequences in Egypt and Beyond
There is more at stake here, though, than just questions about the bilateral implications of relatively minor military aid reductions. The important question here is: How does American deference to Egypt’s rulers impact broader American foreign policy goals?
Claiming to hold Egypt to account while failing in practice to do so undercuts Washington’s human rights policies, discouraging and leaving defenseless civil society groups and human rights defenders who count on the moral support and the political voice of the United States to protect and advance their efforts. This is true enough in Egypt, but it also has an effect throughout the region. American forbearance on human rights issues in Egypt encourages other autocrats in the region to test the United States’ limits, which they reasonably assume will be loose and forgiving.
The Biden administration’s plans to place human rights “at the center of US foreign policy” as part of a broader strategy to bolster democracy in the competition with global authoritarianism is likewise affected by Washington’s choices. Failure to hold Egypt at least minimally accountable—especially by standards the administration itself has set—will discourage and vitiate the Biden administration’s efforts to elevate global democracy as an American brand and its advancement as an ideological struggle of critical importance. As Senator Murphy put it when addressing the Senate, holding Egypt accountable “is critical to American credibility globally when it comes to our call to protect human rights and democracy abroad.”
Reigning Inertia and Much-Needed Reevaluation
Still, many in Congress and in the administration—backed by a chorus of voices in private industry—are firmly committed to the traditional view of Egypt as a vital strategic partner upon whose sufferance American foreign policy in the region depends. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for one, has publicly eviscerated the Biden administration’s timid steps to withhold a small portion of aid as undermining counterterrorism efforts and “boosting the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious extremist groups in the Middle East.” The persuasiveness of such rhetoric made itself evident when a measure introduced by Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to cut aid to “Egypt’s criminal masters” was soundly defeated in an 81-18 vote.
Egypt has also amassed a trove of lobbyists, including many ex-US military members, to plead the country’s case before Congress and the administration. Their message is consistent: US arms sales cement Egypt’s role as an partner in counterterrorism efforts, and are vital to its self-defense.
Whether the Egypt Human Rights Caucus can survive the 2022 mid-term elections is an open question. Most of the momentum on military aid to Egypt emanates from Democrats in Congress, but if Republicans retake the majority in the House and/or the Senate, it is likely that this energy will abate. The retirement of Senator Leahy, a genuine stalwart on human rights issues, will further sap strength from congressional intent.
Egypt has also amassed a trove of lobbyists, including many ex-US military members, to plead the country’s case before Congress and the administration. Their message is consistent: US arms sales cement Egypt’s role as an partner in counterterrorism efforts, and are vital to its self-defense. What is implied, if not often directly stated, is that arms sales to Egypt are also an important moneymaker for the US defense industry.
Those in charge of Egypt policy in the Biden administration obligingly take the view that any reduction in military aid would subvert what they assume to be an indispensable relationship. This view, which is unchallenged by any serious top-to-bottom strategic analysis, is reflected in public statements by the administration and in the inherited talking points used by every State and Defense Department official for the last 40 years, including by this author when he served as political-military officer in the US Embassy in Cairo in the early 2000s.
In a bureaucratic environment that is ruled by precedent, tradition, and the status quo, not much change can be expected. But this does not mean that change should not occur. Policymakers inevitably fail if they refuse to examine their own assumptions. Ongoing disagreements between Congress and the Biden administration will serve a useful purpose if they force a serious reevaluation of US policy toward Egypt, especially regarding military aid and the purposes it does or does not serve.