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US: New Senate foreign relations chair backs blocking military aid to Egypt

Senator Ben Cardin says aid can continue when Cairo takes 'sustainable steps to improve the human rights conditions'
Senator Ben Cardin speaks during a hearing with the Helsinki Commission in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on 23 March 2022 in Washington.
Senator Ben Cardin speaks during a hearing with Helsinki Commission in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on 23 March 2022 (AFP)

The newly appointed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has said he supports blocking $235m in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, after his predecessor was indicted in a corruption scandal involving ties with Egyptian intelligence officials.

Senator Ben Cardin on Tuesday said he told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that his hold on funds “will remain until specific human rights progress is made”.

“I believe it is imperative that we continue to hold the government of Egypt, and all governments, accountable for their human rights violations,” Cardin said in a statement.

He said he would withhold the military aid if Cairo “does not take concrete, meaningful and sustainable steps to improve the human rights conditions in the country”.

The Democratic senator specifically called for more pardons for some of the estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, and providing more space for the political opposition and civil society.

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According to The Freedom Initiative, a human rights organisation that advocates for wrongfully detained persons in the Middle East, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government has released 1,716 people from prison since April 2022 - when Sisi called for a national dialogue.

However, in that same period, 4,590 people were arrested and 86 people died in detention due to medical negligence by authorities.

This year alone, Egyptian authorities released 627 people but arrested an additional 2,028 people.

Upholding human rights in Egypt

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US military aid after it became the first Arab state to normalise ties with Israel in 1980. It receives more than $1bn in aid each year from the US.

The $235m in military aid that Cardin is blocking is part of a $320m figure that Congress had leveraged on human rights standards in Egypt. Blinken did not certify that Cairo met the conditions but waived the restrictions on aid, citing US national security interests.

The Biden administration did, however, withhold $85m of aid that was linked specifically to progress on releasing political prisoners.

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The largest chunk of aid, $980m, was not subject to such restrictions and will go ahead. Still, the withholding of the $320m fulfills a call from several rights groups who have been urging the US Congress and the Biden administration to do more to condemn rights abuses by the Sisi government.

"This hold, and its support within Congress, loudly declares that US lawmakers will not allow any foreign government - especially a supposed strategic partner of the United States - to compromise the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions", more than a dozen rights groups said in a statement ahead of Cardin's announcement on Tuesday.

"And it advances the shared interests of the Egyptian and American people to press for the upholding of human rights in Egypt."

A number of Democrats have been critical of aid to Egypt. However, Bob Menendez, the former chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was recently indicted on allegations that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for exerting his influence to benefit Egypt.

Menendez denied the charges and refused to resign from the US Senate, but stepped down from his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last month, Senator Chris Murphy said that the failure to withhold the $235m was a "missed opportunity to show the world that our commitment to advancing human rights and democracy is more than a talking point".

"Over the past year, President Sisi has continued his brutal campaign of repression against political dissent and the free press," the senator said.

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