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Human rights 'central' to US-Egypt ties, Blinken tells Egyptian counterpart

Antony Blinken raised human rights concerns in call with Sameh Shoukry, but rights advocates are demanding concrete action from Washington
Egyptian police cadets at training session at a police academy in Cairo, 30 December 2019 (AFP/File photo)
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US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry during a call on Tuesday that human rights will be "central" to ties between Cairo and Washington.

The call between the top US diplomat and the Egyptian foreign minister comes as activists demand concrete action from Washington to hold the government of Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accountable for rights abuses.

"The Secretary and the Foreign Minister highlighted the importance of the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, particularly in security and ongoing counterterrorism cooperation, and exchanged views on regional issues," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. 

"The secretary raised concerns over human rights, which he emphasized would be central to the US-Egypt bilateral relationship."

Targeting Soltan's family

Last week, Price rebuked Cairo after security forces in Egypt arrested the relatives of Egyptian-American rights advocate Mohamed Soltan in an apparent effort to intimidate him.

"We have and we continue to engage the Egyptian government on human rights concerns, and we take seriously all allegations of arbitrary arrest or detention as we said in other contexts," Price said, commenting on the arrests.

"We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe - that includes with our close security partners, that includes with Egypt."

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But as the US administration was verbally slamming the Egyptian government, it approved a $200m arms sale to Cairo, sparking criticism from rights advocates.

Elisa Epstein, an advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the targeting of Soltan's family is one of many recent examples of rights abuse that underscores "exactly why the US should halt all arms sales to Egypt".

"The severity of the repression under President Sisi should have already stopped Egypt from receiving US arms. It's extremely disappointing to see an arms sale to Egypt approved early in Biden's tenure," Epstein told MEE last week.

The arms sale also ignited criticism from the Washington Post, whose editorial board reminded President Joe Biden of a 2020 tweet where he said that Washington would no longer provide "blank checks for Trump’s 'favorite dictator.'"

The Post's editorial board said in an op-ed last Thursday that the Biden administration's words of criticism "mean little to Mr Sisi if US money and weapons continue to flow".

US aid to Egypt

Despite reports of rampant human rights violations in Egypt, including enforced disappearance, torture and the detention of tens of thousands of dissidents, former US President Donald Trump enjoyed a warm relationship with Sisi and regularly lavished praise on him.

But Biden has vowed to advance human rights in his foreign policy, including in relations with autocratic allies. Still, the US administration has not made any indication that it will impose human rights conditions on aid to Egypt or reduce assistance to the North African country.

Since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of US military aid. It currently receives $1.3bn in assistance annually.

"So far, the Biden administration needs to amp up the pressure and indicate that there will be consequences for these human rights violations, such as a total ban in arms sales to these countries or other measures," Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for the Middle East, told MEE last week.

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