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US approves $2.5bn arms sale to Egypt despite human rights concerns

Approval for air defence radar and Super Hercules planes comes despite ongoing concerns over Cairo's rights record
C-130J-30 Super Hercules
The potential $2.2bn sale of 12 C-130J-30 Super Hercules planes would include support equipment, spares and technical support, the US Defense Department said (AFP)

The United States has approved an arms sale to Egypt valued at about $2.5bn, despite continued calls for Washington to curtail its support until Cairo improves its human rights record.

The sale, which is not finalised, includes 12 Super Hercules C-130 transport aircraft and related equipment worth $2.2bn, as well as air defence radar systems worth an estimated $355m.

The State Department said the Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of the possible sale on Tuesday.

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"The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East," the State Department said.

"We maintain that our bilateral relationship with Egypt will be stronger, and America’s interests will be better served, through continued US engagement to advance our national security interests, including addressing our human rights concerns," it added.

Despite approval by the State Department, the notification to Congress does not indicate that a contract has been signed or that negotiations have concluded.

In September, the State Department put a hold on $130m of the military aid budgeted for Egypt, citing a lack of improvement in the human rights situation in the country. Cairo was reportedly given a January 30 deadline to show improvements.

It was not immediately clear if the arms sale indicated that the State Department had decided that Egypt had satisfactorily addressed those issues.

Human rights demands

The propsed sale came just hours after six Democrats urged the Biden administration not to release the $130m in aid, unless Cairo clearly met certain human rights conditions.

In 2014, Congress began to impose human rights conditions on $300m of the military aid. However, former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump bypassed the restrictions with national security waivers until Biden put a hold on a portion of the $300m.

Reports of the proposed sale also came a day after Middle East Eye published graphic footage showing the apparent abuse and torture of inmates at a Cairo prison.

There has been ongoing unease in Washington over Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's treatment of political opponents, with rights groups estimating that Egypt holds about 60,000 political prisoners.

Many prisoners continue to languish in abusive conditions, but Sisi has consistently denied there are political prisoners in Egypt, and has instead framed the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism.

On Monday, a group of foreign policy experts wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken noting that in the four months since the aid was withheld, Egypt had only released "a very small number" of Egyptians.

"We believe that these minimal actions are the result of US pressure. Yet they are far from sufficient: al-Sisi's regime has not come close to meeting the administration's conditions, despite a generous timeline," the experts said.

The arms deal also comes nearly three weeks after US authorities arrested a New York man accused of spying on Sisi's political opponents.