President Joe Biden will become the first president to withhold a small percentage of US military aid to Egypt.
Breaking with the precedent set by former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, the Biden administration will not to renew a national security waiver that has historically allowed Cairo to receive its full $1.3 billion foreign military financing package by overriding legislative restrictions that Congress first imposed on Egyptian military assistance in 2014 over human rights concerns.
Still, the total amount of aid withheld will total $130 million — only 10 per cent of Egypt’s annual aid package and less than the $300m that many members of Congress had sought.
Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken will not issue the national security waiver, a congressional source familiar with the matter told The National on Tuesday that the Biden administration is using an exemption in the law for border security, counter-terrorism and non-proliferation activities to partially alleviate the blow to Egypt.
This exemption has angered some members of Congress and advocates who had long urged the State Department to use US military assistance as leverage on Egypt’s human rights record.
“If the administration’s dedication to human rights were sincere, this decision would have been simple: withhold the $300m in military aid as conditioned by Congress to incentivise [President Abdel Fattah El Sisi] to change course,” Seth Binder, the advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told The National.
“Instead, the administration chose to ignore its commitment to human rights by evading the legislative conditions through a vague, previously unused provision in the law.”
And Democrat Chris Murphy, chairman of the Senate Middle East panel who also sits on the foreign aid appropriations subcommittee, called the Biden administration’s decision “a half-hearted implementation of the statute” mandating the Egyptian military aid cuts.
Politico first reported on the Biden administration’s decision not to renew the national security waiver for Egypt while withholding a small percentage of the military assistance.
A State Departmemt spokesperson told The National that the exemption covers all $300 million in Egyptian military aid that Congress had sought to withheld, but that it is withholding $130 million of that assistance until Egypt “affirmatively addresses specific human-rights related conditions.”
“Egypt is a valuable US partner, particularly on regional security, counterterrorism and trade,” said the State Department spokesperson.
“Israeli Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennet’s historic visit to Egypt on September 13 is just one example of Egypt’s important role in promoting regional stability. However, the United States remains concerned by continued reports of human rights violations and abuses outlined in detail in our annual human rights reports.”
The spokesperson also welcomed “Egypt’s recent strengthening of laws to combat female genital mutilation and to increase penalties for sexual harassment and assault.”
Mr El Sisi has managed to curry some favour within the Biden administration for his efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, ending the bombardment of the Gaza strip in May.
The Egyptian president publicly met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh on Monday to discuss the conflict.
Mr Biden had thanked Mr El Sisi for Egypt’s “successful diplomacy” when the two leaders last spoke in May while addressing a range of other issues.
“President Biden underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights in Egypt,” the White House said in a readout of that call.
Egypt has also agreed to export natural gas to Lebanon to address its fuel crisis by way of Jordan and Syria — a move that will require the Biden administration to waive sanctions on Damascus.
Story updated to fix a typo in third paragraph.