US punishes Egypt over crackdown on dissent

Donald Trump's administration is to withhold nearly $300 million from Egypt just days before his son-in-law heads to Cairo for talks

FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 file photo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens as President Donald Trump answer questions regarding the ongoing situation in North Korea, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. The Palestinians are hoping for some clear answers from the U.S. when White House envoy Jared Kushner returns to the region this week. Kushner, who is Trump's son-in-law, is expected to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, as he tries to restart talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
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Frustrated with Egypt’s worsening human rights record, the Trump administration has decided to withhold $290 million in aid payments in a move revealed just days before a high-level U.S. delegation headed by Jared Kushner visits Cairo.

Washington will deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and delay a further $195 million because of its failure to make progress on respecting human rights and democratic norms, according to a State Department official.

The $195 million "will be in an account that can be accessed at any time; but these funds will be held in reserve until we see progress from Egypt on key priorities" the official told The National, confirming a report by Reuters.

The US provides Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in aid, of which $1.3 billion goes to the military.

The decision reflects US frustrations over Cairo’s crackdown on dissent and restrictions on civil liberties, notably a new law regulating non-governmental organisations, but its desire to continue the key strategic relationship and to cooperate on security matters.

“We remain concerned about Egypt’s lack of progress in key areas, including human rights and the new NGO law,” the official said.

There is “widespread frustration within Washington regarding the Sisi government's dismal human rights record and its ever-tightening repression,” Eric Trager, a Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East policy and an expert on Egyptian politics, told The National.

President Trump was very supportive of the US-Egyptian relationship but Congress was much more sceptical, he said.

In 2013, Barack Obama withheld $260 million in aid to Egypt as well as delivery of Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles, and F-16 warplanes.

Two years later in 2015, Mr Obama resumed the aid and US officials contended that the move did not bring the desired change in Egypt’s behaviour.

Mr Trager said he did not believe that withholding aid would be any more successful this time around. Egypt became more repressive after Obama’s action and the strategic partnership suffered, he said.

Mr Kushner, the president’s son in law, arrived in the Gulf this week to meet Saudi, Emirati and Qatari officials.

He will visit Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories before concluding his visit in Egypt on Friday.

He is accompanied by deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, who is Egyptian-born, and the envoy to the Peace Process Jason Greenblatt.

The White House, and Palestinian officials said the trip was intended to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian stalled negotiations and offer a US vision to break the stalemate.