US Congress moves to cut US aid to Egypt

The bill that the House of Representatives approved withholds $300 million unless Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certifies that Egypt is “taking sustained and effective steps” to advance democracy and human rights.
Saturday 26/01/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) holds a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo on January 10, 2019. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) holds a joint press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo on January 10, 2019. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The US House of Representatives took a major step towards sanctioning Egypt for its human rights record with preliminary approval of a measure that could withhold $300 million in military assistance to a long-time US ally.

The proposed cut is part of a massive budget bill that would fund much of the US government in 2019 and end the partial government shutdown that began December 22. It passed the House of Representatives by a comfortable margin and now goes to the US Senate for consideration.

Egypt has received $70 billion in US military and economic aid since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and has come to expect an annual military aid package of $1.3 billion to buy weapons from US manufacturers. The bill passed January 23 by the House would allocate $1 billion in military assistance in 2019.

To receive the additional $300 million, Egypt would have to take steps to advance democracy and human rights, release political prisoners and protect government protesters.

The proposed cut comes as the US State Department and NGOs criticised Egypt’s human rights record under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chose Cairo as the site to deliver a major address during his recent tour of the Middle East. While visiting a mosque January 11 in Cairo, Pompeo praised Egypt’s “freedoms here in these houses of worship, these big, beautiful, gorgeous buildings where the Lord is clearly at work.”

At the same time, US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that Sisi “is moving his country to a more inclusive future.”

Members of Congress have been critical of Egypt and held a hearing in July during which witnesses accused Sisi of “verging on totalitarianism.” In November, dozens of House members signed a letter to Pompeo assailing Egypt for arresting US citizens and Egyptian journalists and protesters.

The funding bill withholds $300 million unless Pompeo certifies that Egypt is “taking sustained and effective steps” to advance democracy and human rights, protect freedom of speech, release political prisons and hold security forces accountable for human rights violations.

US Representative Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York who sponsored the bill, said it was a compromise between Democrats and Republicans. Lowey, a long-time Israel supporter, is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, which must approve all spending measures.

The bill includes restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority and continued assistance to Israel in the form of direct aid and loan guarantees. It calls for an end to Arab League boycott of Israel and for Arab League members to normalise relations with Israel.

The bill also indicates that the US stance towards the Palestinians and Israelis is not likely to change despite the election of two Muslim Americans to the House of Representatives. Although Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Democrats, have received widespread attention in the United States, their influence in Congress as new members is likely to be limited

The bill passed January 23 tacitly condones Trump’s decision in June to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by barring US funding for the organisation unless it takes “significant steps to remove Israel as a permanent agenda.”

When Trump announced the withdrawal, Lowey criticised the move as “weakening US global leadership,” but she also said: “It is inescapable that UNHRC has consistently and unfairly targeted Israel, which has allowed other human rights violations to avoid scrutiny.”