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United States

US continues to give Egypt US$200 million in military aid despite memo outlining ‘deteriorating human rights climate’

Another major US concern is the lack of access Egypt has granted American officials in northern Sinai, where President Sisi is grappling with an insurgency by Islamic militants

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 5:34pm

Egypt is failing to protect free speech and its minorities, investigate abuses by its forces or grant US monitors access to the conflict-ridden Sinai Peninsula, according to a damning Trump administration.

The US grievances, detailed in a State Department memorandum to Congress, are likely to draw consternation from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who meets on Wednesday with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly gathering. The memo was legally required for the Trump administration to continue giving certain US aid to Cairo despite its failure to meet several conditions on good governance.

“The overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate,” the memo says. “There is a continuing problem with arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances. There are reports of extrajudicial killings. There are numerous allegations of torture and deaths in detention.”

There is a continuing problem with arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances. There are reports of extrajudicial killings
U.S. State Department memo

Last month, the Trump administration cut nearly US$100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt, a key counterterrorism partner that has repeatedly run afoul of the US over its human rights record. But the administration said Egypt would still receive almost US$200 million more in military financing, on a delayed basis, if it makes improvements, including easing tight restrictions on civic groups.

Although the US determined it couldn’t certify that Egypt was meeting its conditions to receive the aid, the law allows Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to waive those conditions if he determines it is in US national security interests to provide the funds anyway. But the law requires a detailed “memorandum of justification” outlining how Egypt is falling short.

Tillerson sent the memo to Congress on August 22, the same day the funding decision was announced. But the State Department has declined to make the memo public, despite requests from the media and human rights groups. The memo is considered embarrassing to Sisi, who has denounced previous human rights critiques as baseless.

Sisi did not directly address global critiques of his country’s rights record in his speech to the UN on Tuesday. But the Egyptian leader said his country was working to empower its people economically despite being “encircled by the most dangerous crises in the world”.

Another major US concern is the lack of access Egypt has granted American officials in northern Sinai, where Sisi is grappling with an insurgency by Islamic militants. Egyptian authorities have barred journalists and most others from travelling there, leaving news outlets to rely entirely on statements by the police or the military spokesman.

The report said Egypt has only allowed US officials to visit certain facilities used by an international observer force, and development projects near the Suez Canal. Stephen McInerney, who runs the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said that raises questions about whether the US can legally keep providing military aid and equipment. Under the terms of the aid, the US must be able to monitor how money and weapons transferred to foreign governments are used.

“The US administration deserves credit for acknowledging in this report the brutal reality of escalating human rights abuses by the Egyptian state,” McInerney said.

The US administration deserves credit for acknowledging in this report the brutal reality of escalating human rights abuses
Stephen McInerney, Project on Middle East Democracy

In the report, the US said Cairo is failing to meet five criteria laid out in the annual spending bill covering foreign aid. The memo cited specific incidents, including the arrest of more than 30 members of opposition parties since May. In that same period, the report said, the Egyptians have blocked more than 100 online media outlets, frozen assets of activists and failed to provide due process for political detainees.

“Arrests often occur without warrants or judicial orders,” the report said. “Conditions in prisons and detention centres are harsh due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and poor ventilation.”

The memo also criticises Cairo for granting “impunity” to its police and security forces despite reports of “arbitrary killings” of those being arrested or in custody. And it faults Sisi for signing a law in May that’s viewed as a crackdown on non-governmental groups, including those that advocate for better rights in Egypt.

The State Department didn’t say why it has declined to make the report public. After the AP obtained a copy, a State Department official said the US had determined increased security cooperation with Cairo was important to US national security despite “serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt”. The official wasn’t authorised to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military aid after Israel, receiving about US$1.3 billion annually. Trump has generally avoided direct criticism of Sisi over his country’s human rights record, making no mention of it in a public statement issued after their first meeting in the Oval Office in April.