It's time for Congress to defund Trump's 'favourite dictator'

It's time for Congress to defund Trump's 'favourite dictator'
Comment: Congress needs to hold Egypt accountable for its human rights record, and ensure that US military aid is not used to commit human rights abuses, writes Josh Ruebner.
5 min read
20 Sep, 2019
Egypt only provides limited access to US officials monitoring how US weapons are employed [Getty]

"Where's my favorite dictator?" bellowed Donald Trump to a small roomful of Egyptian and US aides, while awaiting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for a meeting on the sidelines of last month's Group of Seven summit in France, according to an exclusive in the Wall Street Journal.

Trump's crude embrace of Egypt's authoritarianism reflects not only his personal proclivity toward autocrats; his administration has also formally adopted a policy of shrugging its shoulders at Egypt's abysmal human rights record while bankrolling it.

Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a scathing four-page report on human rights in Egypt under Sisi which reads as if it were lifted straight from an Amnesty International analysis. 

Egypt "has continued to restrict unduly the right of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression." The state "continues to investigate and prosecute peaceful critics, ranging from entertainers and media figures to ordinary citizens, for allegedly inciting violence or insulting religion, the judiciary, the military, and other public institutions and figures."

Egyptian courts "have continued to issue mass death sentences in proceedings that failed to meet Egypt's international human rights obligations." The government "has not comprehensively investigated most allegations of human rights violations or abuses by security forces."

Egypt is also reported to have "committed arbitrary or unlawful killings while making arrests or holding persons in custody, including allegations of persons tortured to death and of killings in prisons and detention centres."

The Trump administration has set the bar for US commitment to human rights exceedingly low

Pompeo also acknowledged that Egypt is providing only "limited access" to US officials to monitor how US weapons are being employed by Egypt in its military operations in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Human Rights Watch accused Egypt of "systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests - including of children - enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and forced evictions" in its campaign there.

Egypt's unwillingness to provide full access to US officials in Sinai is a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, under which the US "retains the right to verify credible reports" of the misuse of US weapons, a sanctionable violation.

Pompeo's report, however, was not the product of a newfound Trump administration commitment toward accountability for human rights abuses committed by countries receiving US aid; rather, it stemmed from a reporting requirement specific to Egypt mandated by Congress every year since 2012.

Pompeo was unable to certify to Congress that Egypt has met any of the human rights criteria it enumerated in order for it to receive its full package of US military aid (currently $300 million of Egypt's $1.3 billion appropriation for weapons is withheld pending certification).

The State Department nonetheless kept the spigot of weapons flowing by invoking a national security as a pretext, taking advantage of a waiver which Congress has authorised every year except for 2014 to enable the United States to simultaneously critique Egypt's human rights record while arming it to commit human rights abuses.

The Trump administration has set the bar for US commitment to human rights exceedingly low. However, Pompeo's decision to obligate the remainder of military aid to Egypt while detailing its ongoing catastrophic human rights record represents a retrenchment of its prior position.

In 2017, the Trump administration reprogrammed $100 million of military aid to Egypt to other countries and withheld a further $195 million, citing "serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt." The State Department unfroze the aid in 2018 only after receiving assurances that its human rights concerns were being addressed by Egypt.

Pressure on Egypt to improve its human rights record should be strengthened, not slackened, especially at this moment.

Last Friday, Egyptians took to the streets in an rare and peaceful display of protest against Sisi following allegations by a former contractor, Mohamed Ali, that Sisi is engaged in massive and lavish corruption. Authorities responded by arresting more than 1,300 demonstrators, including prominent opposition politicians, professors, and human rights defenders.

And in another move indicative of its ongoing repression of peaceful political activity, Egyptian police arrested activist Ramy Shaath in July. Shaath - a founder of el-Dustour party and a critic of Egypt's participation in the Trump administration's "Deal of the Century" economic summit in Bahrain in June - has been designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, which concluded that "his detention stems solely from the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and his right to participate in public affairs."

Pressure on Egypt to improve its human rights record should be strengthened, not slackened

Members of Congress have continued to express concern about Egypt's human rights record, implicitly acknowledging that the conditionality they have imposed on military aid has been ineffective in inducing change in Cairo.

For example, in advance of Sisi's April visit to Washington, 17 Senators sent Pompeo a letter expressing "serious concerns about the erosion of political and human rights" represented by proposed constitutional amendments which would increase Sisi's power over the judiciary and could extend his rule to 2034. Human Rights Watch warned that the amendments would "consolidate authoritarian rule."

The fact that Egypt rammed through these constitutional amendments via a referendum called shortly after this letter was released shows the degree to which Sisi is concerned about congressional efforts to condition its support for military aid to Egypt on human rights concerns.

Read more: Egypt awaits: Will Friday see a million Egyptians march against Sisi?

Clearly Congress needs to take a bolder approach to hold Egypt accountable for its human rights record and ensure that US military aid is not used to commit human rights abuses.

As the 2020 budget currently wends its way through Capitol Hill, Members of Congress should step up the pressure on Egypt to improve its human rights record by taking the moderate steps of asking for a State Department investigation into Egypt's potential violations of the Arms Export Control Act, increasing the amount of money withheld from Egypt pending certification that it is improving its human rights record, and doing away with the national security waiver which keeps the full amount of weapons flowing even after the US admits that Egypt's progress on human rights is still lagging.   

Josh Ruebner is senior principal at Progress Up Consulting and author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshruebner

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.