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U.S. Blocks $130 Million in Aid for Egypt Over Rights Abuses

WASHINGTON — Citing human rights concerns, the United States will not give Egypt $130 million in annual security assistance, officials said on Friday, even as the Biden administration continues to approve billions of dollars in military sales to the Middle Eastern ally.

The financial aid was temporarily frozen in the fall as the State Department demanded that Egypt do more to protect the rights of political critics, journalists, women and members of civil society. It was the first time that a secretary of state did not issue a formal national security waiver to provide the aid, and was aimed at pressuring officials in Cairo to release political prisoners and stop persecuting critics.

Since then, Egypt has failed to convince the Biden administration that steps the country has taken were enough to protect human rights — and, in turn, preserve the funding.

“It sends the important message abroad that we will back up our commitment to human rights with action, and gone are the days where dictators receive blank checks from America,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said in a statement on Friday.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by phone with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry of Egypt on Thursday, but the State Department had not made a final decision on whether to withhold the assistance as of Friday afternoon, said Jalina Porter, a department spokeswoman. But other department officials, who spoke to reporters on condition that they not be named in keeping with department protocols, said Mr. Blinken was expected to divert the funding to other national security priorities — and away from Egypt.

The Egyptian government has not officially responded. President Donald J. Trump also froze military aid to Egypt in 2017, but released it the following year.

Mr. Murphy said the Biden administration had outlined a “list of narrow and wholly achievable human rights conditions” for Egypt to meet to receive the financial assistance before a Jan. 31 deadline. Other officials said the preciserequirements were classified but included the overturning of guidelines that had allowed for the unjust detention and harassment of Egyptian and foreign human rights activists.

An annual State Department report on Egypt’s human rights record, released in March, cited numerous examples of abuse by government security forces, including extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture. It also found that free and political speech was inhibited, including by restricting the news media, and that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people were targeted with violence.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt has consistently ranked among the world’s top jailers of journalists since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected in 2014.

Last fall, Mr. el-Sisi announced a new strategy to protect human rights and in the months since has released some political prisoners.

But activists and American officials said it did not go far enough.

In November, five Egyptian activists and politicians, including a former member of Parliament, were sentenced from three to five years in prison on charges of spreading false news and using their social media accounts to undermine national security.

In December, an Egyptian court sentenced three prominent human rights figures to several years in prison, also on charges of spreading false news.

“Of course the Egyptian government is saying things have improved, but the reality on the ground is dark and vicious,” said Gamal Eid, who ran an independent human rights organization in Egypt for 18 years before announcing this month that he would end its operations, citing security threats and police intimidation.

Mr. Eid, who was the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, is embroiled in a criminal case against a number of nongovernmental organizations, and dozens of their members, that the authorities have accused of receiving foreign funding illegally. He has been banned from travel since 2016, and his assets have been frozen. Two of his team members, a lawyer and a researcher, are in jail.

The blocked funding is just a fraction of an estimated $1.3 billion in aid the United States generally gives Egypt each year. Only a small amount of the assistance is conditioned on the country’s human rights record, under requirements set by Congress, and officials at the State Department said $130 million was the maximum they could withhold in a single fiscal year.

But Egypt has continued to buy billions of dollars worth of military airplanes, ships and other equipment — including $2.5 billion in C-130 cargo jets and radar that was announced this week alone.

The State Department officials described military sales as unrelated to the financial assistance that the United States provides Egypt annually. They also said the military equipment most recently sold to Cairo would further American security interests; the jets, in particular, would replace older planes Egypt had used to distribute humanitarian aid and coronavirus relief supplies.

“Our approach reflects both our values and our interests,” the department said in a statement Friday.

After taking office a year ago, the Biden administration issued a statement promising to put “human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” It has since sought to walk a line between enforcing American standards of human rights and alienating strategically located foreign partners who do not adhere to those standards.

Egypt is a key partner with the United States in negotiating peace between Israel and Hamas, and providing stability in the Gaza Strip. But it also was not invited to a meeting of more than 100 countries that President Biden hosted in December to rally the world’s democracies against authoritarian governments.

Amr Magdi, a senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the recent military sales showed that the Biden administration was still willing to provide diplomatic and military support to Mr. el-Sisi, despite the abuses.

“That sends a signal to the Egyptian government that they can definitely get what they want with time, and that they don’t really have to meet any concrete benchmarks, and that the release of just a few activists can serve as the fig leaf to the Biden administration and others who want to continue doing business as usual,” Mr. Magdi said.

Lara Jakes reported from Washington and Mona El-Naggar from Cairo.

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