Military aid to Egypt shapes up as key human rights test for Biden

Cairo's role in Israeli-Hamas conflict altered administration's stance toward Egypt

House Democrats want Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi (left) to improve the human rights situation in his country. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
House Democrats want Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi (left) to improve the human rights situation in his country. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Posted August 16, 2021 at 9:00am

As a candidate and as president, Joe Biden has talked repeatedly about having a U.S. foreign policy centered on human rights. Critics, so far, have their doubts.

In the first seven months of his administration, Biden has come under criticism for appearing to prioritize security interests over human rights. His administration has not declared the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar a genocide, has proceeded with the sale of advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and opted against sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite a U.S. intelligence finding that he was behind the 2018 assassination of a prominent dissident journalist.

In those incidents, administration officials have argued they are still collecting information and doing important cost-benefit calculations while leaving room to take action later should the situations change.

Now, a more clear-cut test case of Biden’s commitment to human rights has emerged, one where U.S. security interests are less clearly involved and where House Democrats are attempting to force the issue.

U.S. taxpayers since 1987 have provided Egypt with $1.3 billion annually in grants known as Foreign Military Financing, which Cairo uses to purchase big U.S. weapon systems.

After the 2013 Egyptian military coup against the country's democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Congress has included a policy rider in the annual State-Foreign Operations spending measure fencing off a portion of that FMF funding. Lawmakers have aimed to force the current president, Abdel Fattah al Sisi, into taking steps to improve Egypt's human rights situation, including by releasing political prisoners and relaxing a draconian anti-civil society law.

However, Congress has usually also provided a waiver that the State Department can use to disburse the restricted FMF grants. All State Department officials have to do is deem doing so to be in the U.S. national interest. In practice, that has meant the waiver is typically used and Egypt eventually gets access to the full amount of military grants — all while the human rights situation in the Arab world’s largest country has steadily deteriorated.

“It is not the 1970s any longer; the Soviets and the Arab nationalists are gone,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., at a Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee hearing last week that examined security assistance policies. “We’ve invested over $50 billion in Egypt’s army over the past 40 years. They did provide support to us in the Gulf War in 1991, but recently that army has been more focused on internal repression than on regional security.”

Murphy is among a growing group of Democrats and outside experts pushing the Biden administration to reconsider one of Washington’s long-standing foreign policy assumptions for the Middle East: that annual security assistance to Egypt undergirds Cairo’s continued participation in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel while also buttressing U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

While the House-passed version of the fiscal 2022 foreign aid bill would appropriate the traditional $1.3 billion in military grants for Egypt, it fences off a larger amount than in previous years because of human rights concerns and, crucially, does not provide a national security waiver for a portion of that fenced-off security assistance.

Cairo, which is financially strapped because of long-standing fiscal problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, risks losing out on a portion of the U.S. financial assistance that constitutes a big chunk of its annual military budget.

The House bill would fence off $300 million in security assistance to Egypt over human rights concerns. Half of that amount, or $150 million, comes with a national security waiver. 

The other $150 million doesn't come with a national security waiver and is further divided into two amounts: $15 million that is connected to Cairo making restitution to U.S. citizen April Corley, who was permanently injured in 2015 when her tourist bus came under wrongful attack by the Egyptian military, and $135 million whose release is conditioned on the Sisi regime “making clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law,” according to the bill text.

Biden, GOP oppose limits 

The House bill's lack of a national security waiver for that $150 million drew strong rebukes from House Republicans and the Biden White House.

In its official policy statement on the bill, the White House said it “strongly” opposed the restrictions on Egyptian military grants. That was the harshest criticism the administration had for any provision in the House legislation. The White House argued that the restrictions would “reduce the administration’s flexibility in regards to FMF to Egypt, undermining its leverage as it operationalizes its commitment to a constructive human rights dialogue with Egypt.”

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the ranking member of the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a floor speech ahead of passage of the broader bill, which he opposed, that “while the bill maintains funding for Egypt at the current level, I strongly disagree with additional conditions on the aid.”

Rogers isn't known to have objected much last December when top Senate and House negotiators hammering out a fiscal 2021 omnibus spending package agreed to fence off $75 million of Egypt’s FMF grants until certain human rights improvements were made. That group did not provide a waiver for the funding, according to an analyst who closely tracks assistance to Egypt and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The bipartisan, bicameral decision to take that strong, though mostly symbolic, action came shortly after Cairo embarked on another crackdown against prominent Egyptian human rights activists, which drew stern rebukes from lawmakers and Biden’s then-nominee to be secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

So what has changed since December, when congressional Republicans and the incoming Biden administration were more willing to take a tough line on Sisi’s human rights abuses? Two things, analysts say.

One is Cairo hired former House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, who left Congress at the end of 2018, as a lobbyist. The former Republican lawmaker, who works for the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, registered in January under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as a lobbyist for the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The Californian did not respond to a request for comment.

The second is the central role Cairo played in facilitating the May ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, which ended 11 days of deadly fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Before that, Biden had declined to reward Sisi with the symbolic importance of a telephone call from a new U.S. president. Three days after the ceasefire deal was reached, Biden made that call. What's more, the State Department has been in regular high-level contact with Egypt since May.

Delicate 'détente'

Under conventional Washington foreign policy thinking, it would seem the Gaza war cemented anew Egypt’s importance as a key stabilizing factor between Israel and its Arab neighbors. At the same time, Israel has expanded its relations with Arab states since 1979, with much of that diplomatic headway achieved during the Trump administration.

But would Egypt continue playing that stabilizing role if Washington withheld some security assistance funds or altered the mix to priroritize development assistance over military grants? Notably, Cairo earned regional prestige from its ceasefire negotiations in Gaza.

“Is our aid necessary today in order to continue to prompt Egypt to achieve a détente with Israel, or is it now in their own security interests? Do they get something out of that relationship on its own independent of our security assistance,” Murphy said at last week’s hearing. “Isn’t there a case to be made that some of the things we used to purchase with aid to Egypt, Egypt will do without that aid or without that exact amount of aid we provide?”

But Murphy was unable to extract a clear answer from the State Department and Pentagon officials testifying on why the Biden administration believes the calculus for providing billions in military aid to Egypt has remained essentially unchanged since 1979.

“The president himself has underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights with the government of Egypt,” testified Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of State for regional security. “We will continue to pursue this even as we pursue shared security goals on maritime security, on border security, on counterterrorism. We understand that Egypt remains an important security partner as evidenced by their leadership in achieving the ceasefire in Gaza.”

Lauren Woods, director of the Security Assistance Monitor project at the liberal Center for International Policy think tank, said the talking points from the Biden State Department on Egypt are the same ones she heard working there during the Obama administration.  

Egypt’s purchase of U.S. weapons with the FMF funding since 2008 broadly fall into four categories: helicopter-type aircraft ($4.6 billion), fixed-wing aircraft ($3.4 billion), weapons maintenance services ($2.1 billion), and tanks and armored vehicles ($1.3 billion), according to figures tabulated by the Security Assistance Monitor.

“These are not the kinds of weapon systems that we think are most necessary to produce stability in the region,” Woods said in an interview. “They’re good for American companies. They are what Egypt desires, but they don’t reflect the lessons that I think we should have taken from 2011, which is that human security is national security.”

'Hard choices'

Widespread frustrations and despair at the lack of opportunity for economic advancement were at the heart of the massive popular uprising in Cairo in 2011 that led to the downfall of the long-standing autocratic President Hosni Mubarak. Little has changed since to improve the living standards of the average Egyptian. Roughly 33 percent of Egypt’s 100 million people live below the poverty line, according to the U.N. World Food Program.

When the Senate returns next month, it is expected to mark up its version of the fiscal 2022 foreign aid bill, this time under the direction of Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of Congress’ biggest proponents of international development programs and a close ally of Biden’s.

Coons told CQ Roll Call he has yet to familiarize himself with the House-passed foreign aid bill.

“In many countries around the world, we have hard choices to balance, making human rights a priority with also sustaining relationships with strategic partners,” Coons said in response to how he would weigh human rights concerns when it comes to appropriating military aid for Egypt.

Even Murphy, who also sits on the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee that Coons chairs, suggested he was not yet fully ready to support the symbolically tough restrictions advanced by the House foreign aid bill, which this year was authored by progressive Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

The Connecticut Democrat in an interview said he was waiting to see whether the State Department opts to use a waiver previously provided by Congress for fenced-off military aid to Egypt before deciding how strong a line to press in negotiations around the fiscal 2022 Senate State-Foreign Operations bill.

The administration has until the end of September to decide whether to use its waiver to release to Egypt $300 million in withheld fiscal 2020 FMF appropriations.

“If they blow through another waiver, then I’m not sure what the utility of continuing to provide that waiver is,” Murphy said. “But let’s see. I’m hopeful that the administration is going to recognize that if Egypt has not met the conditions, [it will] recognize the harm to our interests by continuing to endorse their crackdown on dissent and act accordingly.”