Biden Sent Egypt a Message on Human Rights. These Democrats Want More

The administration is withholding some military aid from Cairo, but not everyone in Washington is impressed. 'Other dictators notice when America talks tough but doesn’t follow with action,' one senator says

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Biden is withholding $130 million until Egypt meets certain human rights criteria.Credit: Evan Vucci,AP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is trying to send a message to both Egypt and the Democratic Party by partially withholding and restricting a portion of military aid to Cairo.

Democrats in Congress, however, describe the move as a half measure that does not adequately stress human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

In its message to Cairo, the administration is not expected to provide blanket approval of $300 million in military aid via a national security waiver, which previous administrations used, because Egypt has failed to meet human rights conditions attached to the aid by Congress.

Rather than reject the waiver outright, the administration reportedly plans to grant $170 million, to be used for purposes such as counterterrorism, border security and nonproliferation. But it will withhold $130 million until Egypt meets certain human rights criteria.

While the move is meant as a rebuke of the regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Democrats are lambasting Biden for missing an opportunity to stand up more for human rights.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in Washington last week. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

“Egypt had almost two years to meet the human rights improvements required by Congress, but arguably the situation on the ground in Egypt has gotten worse,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, head of the Senate subcommittee that deals with the Middle East.

“There’s virtually no space for dissent, 60,000 political prisoners remain locked up, and Egypt’s police state has tightened its grip on NGOs and the media. Continuing our security relationship with Egypt, with only minor changes, sends the wrong message,” he added.

“I’m glad the administration refused to certify [that] Egypt has met the human rights conditions in the law, but this decision is a half-hearted implementation of the statute. Other dictators and aspiring dictators notice when America talks tough on human rights but doesn’t follow through with bold action. This was a chance to send a strong message about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, with little cost to our security, and we fell short.”

While Murphy is perhaps the leading voice on Capitol Hill calling for a rethink of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, he is not alone. A group of leading House Democrats formed the Egypt Human Rights Caucus this year to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring. The caucus focuses on the growing consensus that Egypt is a key ally but its human rights record is a major concern and American interests are not served by unconditional support for Egypt.

Reps. Don Beyer and Tom Malinowski – alongside Reps. Andy Levin, Ted Lieu, Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar, Seth Moulton and Sara Jacobs – said the administration’s move violates the spirit and intent of the law, and while they commended the administration for withholding some of the aid in acknowledgement of Egypt’s record, “the decision ignored the clear intent of Congress that $300 million be held back, and sidestepped Congressionally mandated conditions on that aid.”

The House Democrats stressed that the previously enacted human rights conditions on the aid “were not meant as suggestions, and if Congress had intended them to apply to only $130 million in aid, rather than $300 million, Congress would have said so. We will work to ensure that this and future administrations cannot evade its requirements.”

The debate in Washington comes as Egypt has taken steps to warm ties with the new Israeli government in an attempt to send a benign message to the administration. While Biden’s team indicated when it took office that it would dramatically reconsider U.S.-Egypt relations, its plans were largely offset by Egypt’s role in maintaining regional calm – particularly with its efforts in mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in May.

Israeli officials, too, have urged the United States to keep Egypt close in order to maintain regional stability and prevent a shift toward non-allies like China and Russia.

Israel's Naftali Bennett and Egypt's Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Sharm al-Sheikh on Monday.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

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