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US Senate backs $2.2bn arms sale to Egypt, but discontent within Washington grows

The US Senate easily threw out a bid by Senator Rand Paul to block the sale, but experts say the vote itself was 'unprecedented'
The sale to Egypt consisted of a dozen 130J cargo planes, air defence radar systems, and related equipment.
The sale to Egypt consisted of a dozen 130J cargo planes, air defence radar systems, and related equipment (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Rights groups and Middle East policy experts have lauded a failed attempt by Senator Rand Paul to block a $2.2bn military sale to Egypt, saying the congressional vote showed a growing sense of bipartisan frustration over a perceived failure by Washington to hold Cairo accountable over its human rights record.

On Thursday, the Senate voted down a resolution proposed by Paul, which sought to block the sale of a dozen 130J cargo planes, air defence radar systems, and related equipment to Egypt.

"We should end military sales to Egypt's criminal masters," Paul said on the Senate floor.

"Partially taking away some military aid while offering new sales that are 10 times what we've withheld shows weakness in the face of oppression," he added, in reference to a move by Washington to withhold $130m in aid over human rights concerns.

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The measure was thrown out in an 80-19 vote, but prominent lawmakers including Senators Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Mike Lee joined Paul in voting for the bill.

"This vote is rather unprecedented for arms sales to Egypt. It's a rare moment to see senators express concern for ongoing US support for Egypt's authoritarian, rights-abusing government through a vote to block an arms sale," Seth Binder, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Middle East Eye.

Raed Jarrar, Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn)'s advocacy director, told MEE that "this is the first time that we've got the Senate on record regarding an arms sale for Egypt. This has never happened before."

"The introduction of the joint resolution of disapproval was definitely a symbolic and political message to the Egyptian government.

"There wasn't any expectation that it would pass, but it was a move to send the message that we're watching the human rights abuses of Egypt and we're not okay with the blank cheque policy of supporting the Sisi regime."

'Congress isn't a monolith'

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 and framed 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. 

The US State Department's own human rights report acknowledges that Egypt's human rights abuses include: arbitrary and extra-judicial killings; forced disappearances; torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; and political prisoners.

At the same time, Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of US aid in American history and receives roughly $1.3bn in military assistance from Washington each year.

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On the campaign trail, US President Joe Biden pledged that there would be "no more blank cheques" for "Trump's favourite dictator," a reference to Sisi.

But months into his presidency, the administration approved an arms sale despite arrests against the relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan.

While the administration did withhold $130m in aid, roughly 10 percent of the annual assistance it sends Cairo, lawmakers and rights groups have said it falls short of the $300m they have been calling for to be withheld.

Earlier this week, Congress took another step towards leveraging US aid to Cairo. Included in the stopgap spending bill passed late on Wednesday is a provision that would withhold $235m of aid.

Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative, said the provision "conditioned more military aid to Egypt than ever before on human rights conditions and closed loopholes that the administration had used to bypass conditions".

The passage of the provision within the spending bill, followed by the failure to block the arms sale on Thursday shows that "Congress isn't a monolith", Sarah Yager, Human Rights Watch's Washington director, told MEE.

"Congress is made up of people who believe deeply in holding Egypt accountable, and people who can't see past US security interests to understand that accountability is, actually, the smarter thing to do."

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