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US must push Egypt for 'meaningful improvements' on human rights, experts say

In a letter sent to the Biden administration, foreign policy experts say Egypt's failure to address human rights concerns should have 'negative consequences'
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry will be spending the next two days discussing a number of issues.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry will be spending the next two days discussing a number of issues (AFP)
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More than a dozen foreign policy experts called on the US to press Egypt on human rights reforms as the two countries' foreign ministers met in Washington on Monday for a two-day strategic dialogue summit.

In a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 15 members of the Working Group on Egypt called on Washington's top diplomat to "speak forthrightly about Egypt’s appalling human rights record and press the Egyptian delegation on the urgent need for meaningful improvements".

"Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt is one of the world's worst human rights abusers," the experts said.

"We hope that you will make clear that the Egyptian government’s failure to improve its human rights record, including its unwillingness to fully implement these measures, will have negative consequences for its relationship with the United States."

The group is composed of experts from organisations including the Project on Middle East Democracy; the Council on Foreign Relations; the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

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During his opening remarks at the forum, Blinken addressed the issue of human rights and commended Cairo for the release of its national human rights strategy, while also saying there were some issues of concern - without going into further detail.

"Making tangible and lasting improvements on human rights is also essential to strengthening our bilateral relationship, and the United States will continue to support those efforts," he said.

But the experts said the human rights strategy - which was announced in September - was mostly "cosmetic" and urged Washington to hold Cairo accountable for meaningful reform, including "freeing political prisoners, halting 'endless' detentions, staying all executions, stopping criminal prosecutions of human rights activists".

Egypt is considered to be the world's third-worst jailer of journalists, behind China and Turkey, with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners being held in jails in the country, according to rights groups.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has consistently denied this, saying there are no political prisoners and framing the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism.

The campaign against dissidents has also targeted US citizens, permanent residents, visa holders and their family members, according to a report released in May. 

US-Egypt aid

The strategic summit is the first of its kind between the two countries since 2015. Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry will be spending the next two days discussing a number of issues including regional security, bilateral relations and human rights.

Blinken spoke of how the US and Egypt can work together on ensuring the political process in Libya stays on track and how "the United States and Egypt have a shared interest in getting [Sudan's] democratic transition back on track" after Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan enacted a military coup last month.

Egypt, however, was notably absent from a joint statement from the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that called for the restoration of a civilian-led government in Khartoum.

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Blinken and Shoukry also spoke about the economic ties between the two countries, with Egypt being the second-largest recipient of American aid, trailing only behind Israel.

Since 1946, the North African country has received more than $83bn in foreign assistance from the US.

This aid has also been a matter of debate in Washington, as rights groups, foreign policy experts, and lawmakers have called for cutting a portion of this aid over concerns of human rights violations in Egypt.

In September, the Biden administration froze $130m of the annual $1.3bn it gives to Egypt and agreed to release the funds only if the Sisi government meets a set of human rights demands.

While the decision was seen as middle ground between the White House and Congress, which had introduced a law calling for the withholding of $300m in aid, some lawmakers had said the Biden administration fell short of its human rights commitments.

"The administration should make plain that it has no intention of reversing its decision and that it expects Egypt to meet these benchmarks - and that failure to do so will result in the forfeiture of the suspended assistance," the Working Group on Egypt said.