Trump administration should withhold aid to rein in Egypt's Sisi
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For Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration, it’s decision time on Egypt. Tillerson must decide in the coming weeks whether to release the 15 percent of Foreign Military Funding (FMF) contingent on human rights reform. A 2016 law requires the secretary of state to certify that Egypt “is taking effective steps to protect freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including the ability of civil society organizations and the media to function without interference."  

President Sisi’s government clearly isn’t taking effective steps to protect these human rights — quite the contrary — and Tillerson could say so and release the aid anyway by invoking the law’s national security waiver. But he’s under increasing congressional pressure to take a harder line against Egypt’s repression. 

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Further complicating matters is the acrimony between U.S. military allies in the Arabian Gulf. On one side is Qatar, which is backed by Turkey. On the other is Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, who are backed by Egypt. Tillerson is trying to mediate, but the rhetoric from both sides is escalating dangerously. The United States has thousands of military personnel in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. Washington also has a huge military relationship with Egypt, which itself is looking increasingly fragile.

 

There were four hearings in Congress last month on aid to Egypt, and on June 19, a bipartisan group of 10 senators wrote to President Trump saying they were “gravely concerned by the worsening situation for human rights and civil society in Egypt, including the new law restricting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs),” signed by Sisi in May.

Separately, Senators John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump stokes new unlikely feud Meghan McCain: Living without father like 'some awful parallel universe' Leon Panetta’s nightmare is today's national security crisis MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCIA's report complicates US response to Khashoggi murder Leon Panetta’s nightmare is today's national security crisis The Hill's Morning Report — GOP victorious in Florida while Dems say `Sunbelt strategy’ looks bright for 2020 MORE (R-S.C.) publicly warned Sisi that, “With this [NGO] law in place, Congress should strengthen democratic benchmarks and human rights conditions on U.S. assistance for Egypt.”  

This week, I met human rights activists in Cairo who have been jailed on trumped-up charges, or are awaiting trial for spurious offenses. Many are prevented from leaving the country. The activists — whom I’m not naming for fear of putting them in danger — agree that withholding 15 percent of military funding would send a crucial signal to Sisi. 

The United States should try everything, they say, to stop the intensifying attacks on what remains of Egyptian civil society. One activist told me, “This 15 percent is a major deal. It’s a chance for Washington to show it doesn’t approve of Sisi’s attacks on human rights, that it’s serious about pushing for reform. The U.S. has leverage, and it should use it.”

The new NGO law will virtually eliminate human rights advocacy in the country. Dozens of activists face charges for allegedly receiving foreign funding. Peaceful dissidents are jailed, exiled, or facing travel bans and asset freezes. Activists estimate that 140 websites — including virtual private networks, which enable greater security for activists — are now blocked.

Sisi’s repression is also fueling violent extremism, making Egypt more dangerous. 

Tillerson has to decide whether to release the 15 percent — $195 million of the $1.3 billion annual package — by Sept. 30. He will have a similar decision this time next year because the fiscal year (FY) 2017 law also conditions 15 percent of FMF on human rights reform.

What will be in the FY 2018 law is still being thrashed out. Activists hope that it will dispense with the much-derided national security waiver and properly link Egypt’s military aid to reform.

Sisi, who is up for election next year, wants public support from the United States. His visit to the White House earlier this year helped boost his credibility internally. An announcement that the U.S. government is withholding aid because of his repression would be deeply embarrassing.

Censuring Sisi in this way is long overdue. If the Trump administration wants to encourage its erratic ally away from repression and toward more stable politics, it should withhold the aid.

Brian Dooley (@dooley_dooley) is senior advisor at Human Rights First, an international human rights organization based in New York, Washington D.C., Houston and Los Angeles.


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