Since 1946, the United States has provided Egypt with over US$84 billion in bilateral foreign aid (calculated in historical dollars—not adjusted for inflation), with military and economic assistance. The aid increased significantly after the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty negotiated at Camp David in 1978. Now at about US$1.3 billion per year, human rights and democracy activists argue the US aid is used to conduct activities contrary to both American interests and values, and that it is high time to draw the line on Egypt.
According to the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the United States is not reaping the intended rewards of its massive “investment” in the country. Yet while the Trump administration is seeking drastic cuts to US foreign assistance elsewhere, the administration continues to request US$1.3 billion every year in military aid for Egypt.
“At a time of heightened pressure on the US federal budget,” POMED’s Deputy Director for Policy Andrew Miller said, “it is all the more important to understand the real return on the major investment the United States is making in the Egyptian military.”
The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) published a fact sheet in July addressing common misconceptions about US military aid to Egypt.
To that end, POMED published a fact sheet in July addressing common misconceptions about US military aid to Egypt and highlighting a plethora of egregious human rights and other abuses. The list included detention and torture of American citizens, arrests of doctors and journalists, increasing violence against women and LBGTQ people, and continued repression of minority groups, including discrimination against Egyptian Christians. It also cited the al-Sisi regime’s cooperation with other dictatorships such as North Korea and multi-billion-dollar purchases of military equipment from Russia.
On September 9, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to evaluate the status of human rights in Egypt. Among those who testified were Mohamed Soltan, an American citizen who filed a lawsuit in June against Egyptian officials under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
Soltan, who is the co-founder and President of the Freedom Initiative, gave a horrifying account of his two-year “struggle for freedom” in Egyptian prisons. He described in excruciating detail the depraved actions designed to break him, even to get him to take his own life.
Moved between six prisons and police stations over the course of his two-year detention, he said each time he was met with “welcoming parties” of guards and officers “who beat [him] with batons, whips, and belts.” Soltan said he faced relentless interrogation by national security forces and alleged that he was accused of the “most heinous fabricated assortment of crimes” in retaliation for “peacefully protesting a brutal military coup and violent crackdown on citizens,” known as the Rabaa massacre.
After a 489-day hunger strike, Soltan was finally released in 2015. He said he was one of “the lucky ones,” being an American citizen. Now he fights for the nearly 60,000 other political prisoners still detained by the al-Sisi government.
But the al-Sisi regime’s pressure and persecution of him has not stopped since his liberation. After filing his TVPA lawsuit in June, five of Soltan’s family members were arrested by the Egyptian authorities. They are still in detention without having been charged, and his uncle was told to tell Soltan to “drop the lawsuit” in return for the release of three of his cousins.
His father, however, who has been a political prisoner since September 2013, was moved by the authorities just after Soltan filed his lawsuit, and his location has not been released. In his testimony, Soltan alleged that the regime had effectively abducted his father and made him disappear as part of its pressure tactics.
Remarking on the “toxic one-way relationship” between Egypt and the US, Soltan raised a number of poignant questions, framed in a scathing indictment of the Trump administration:
“How can a ruthless regime we subsidize with over 1.3 billion of our tax dollars each year, assault our judiciary and breach our sovereignty without any repercussions? How can they still be hailed as an ‘ally and a partner’ while becoming increasingly resistant to pressure about [their] dismal human rights record?”
“How can a ruthless regime we subsidize with over 1.3 billion of our tax dollars each year, assault our judiciary and breach our sovereignty without any repercussions?”
Soltan testified that this result wasn’t reached in a vacuum. He stated that President Trump has met with President al-Sisi three times, but not once has Trump raised any human rights concerns. Quite the contrary, said Soltan:
“In fact, [Trump] has praised al-Sisi’s ‘fantastic job’ in Egypt. The Egyptian regime has not been held accountable for a single crime or violation they have committed since. The simple answer is impunity; toothless diplomacy in the face of bully diplomacy and state thuggery.”
Bahey eldin Hassan, Director and Co-Founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, testified that “the only channels of dialogue President Abdelfattah al-Sisi allows with human rights defenders is kidnapping and beating their sons or daughters . . . arresting their spouses . . . or forcibly disappearing or torturing them.” He said he was therefore using his testimony as a means of “communication” with the al-Sisi government.
Hassan documented a litany of abuses by the Egyptian regime against lawyers, activists, and human rights defenders. He decried “the collapse of judicial norms” that has affected not only “political cases, but also the blatant discrimination against women,” citing several recent highly publicized cases of rape in which the victims and the witnesses were imprisoned.
Hassan, who has been charged with “insulting the judiciary,” said that for many years independent human rights defenders such as he had advocated—along with the judges themselves—for the independence of the judiciary.
“I never meant to insult the judiciary,” Hassan said, “but I criticized those who transformed the oldest modern judiciary in the Arab world into a weapon against peaceful dissidents.”
Hassan is currently exiled in France. Poignantly, while he noted that his testimony before the US Congress could lead to additional criminal sentences in Egypt, he called for pushback from the international community.
POMED’s Deputy Director for Research Project on Middle East Democracy, Amy Hawthorne, laid out in her testimony the folly of the current status quo where billions of dollars are given to one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
“In the seven years since the overthrow of Egypt’s only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the human rights situation has become dramatically worse.”
She said that in the seven years since the overthrow of Egypt’s only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the human rights situation has become dramatically worse, worse even than under Hosni Mubarak. She highlighted the growing scale, the expansion in the breadth of targets, and the downright viciousness of the regime’s increasingly repressive actions.
She urged that “clear red lines” be drawn by the US. Among these were recommendations clearly aimed at President Trump:
“Al-Sisi should not be invited to visit Washington so long as he continues to unjustly imprison American citizens and carry out other horrific abuses.” Moreover, she insisted that the US should not “offer undeserved praise and other legitimation to President al-Sisi and his regime.”
Hawthorne advocated that Congress “reduce military aid, [and] make tranches of the remaining funds conditional on specific Egyptian government actions,” such as “releasing American political detainees” and allowing US officials to “adequately monitor the end-use of US-supplied weapons to ensure they are not being used in human rights violations”—a use that is already unlawful under the Arms Export Control Act.
While the House subcommittee hearing fleshed out dozens of egregious abuses that American tax dollars pay for in Egypt, where the US goes from here may well depend upon who wins the presidential election in November.