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Home / Blog / Blinken’s Decision Imminent on Funding an Egyptian Government that Enables Terrorism
August 02, 2021

Blinken’s Decision Imminent on Funding an Egyptian Government that Enables Terrorism

A few months ago, when the Biden administration was talking about “putting human rights at the center of foreign policy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken met online with a group of leading human rights activists from around the world, including Hossam Bahgat from Egypt.

We hoped that this and other early signals might herald a new direction for U.S. policy toward the repressive regime in Cairo, one that insisted on respect for human rights.

The Biden administration is instead sticking to the old model on Egypt -- offering muted criticisms of that government’s abuses while continuing to ply it with vast amounts of weapons.

The State Department calls a massive $197 million arms deal with the Egyptian government “routine,” clearly confirming that there will be no recalibration of the relationship.  That military support continues despite plenty of evidence that part of Egypt’s horrific record of rights abuses includes the routine torture of prisoners, which drives the abused into the arms of ISIS gangs inside Egyptian jails.

For years, Human Rights First has documented the radicalization happening in Egypt’s prison system.  We’ve just issued a report that again illustrates how the torture of detainees fuels recruitment into ISIS.  While it is the Egyptian government that is doing this, the U.S. government is actively enabling them, helping to create the terrorism it says it is trying to fight.

I spoke to men recently released from prisons across Egypt. They gave consistent and credible evidence of ISIS successfully recruiting followers throughout Egypt’s criminal justice system. One former prisoner told me “I saw groups of men in Al Aqrab prison join ISIS after being abused – not just one or two but several. They were just normal prisoners but then they joined ISIS.”

Prisoners gave detailed accounts of torture they witnessed or experienced. “There are electrocutions,” said one.  “Or you can be hanged from the ceiling by your arms or legs for days. Sometimes they bring members of your family to where you are interrogated, a prisoner’s sister or mother or daughter, and threaten them and make the prisoner confess to things he hasn’t done. I know where wives were brought to the investigation offices and the prisoner was told that the officers would ‘do things to their wives if they didn’t confess.”

Another recounted how he knew “three guys who when they arrived in prison weren’t radical. They would smoke cigarettes with us, joked with us… They joined ISIS in prison. When they were released, two went to fight for ISIS in Sinai and one was killed fighting in Syria.”

Egypt’s military typically gets $1 billion each year in U.S. funding without any strings and another $300 million that, by law, should be contingent on a good human rights record.  The U.S. government nearly always sends the full amount, despite decades of horrific abuses.

Secretary Blinken has to decide in the coming weeks about that $300 million.  The decision is usually announced in August, with a hard deadline in September. If the State Department refuses to send that part of the military funding it would be a small move but a major improvement on the usual anguished but impotent handwringing.

Occasional public pleas for better behavior – and private expressions of concern that we are told are happening but know next to nothing about – isn’t much of a human rights strategy, or much of a counter-terrorism one, from a vital Egyptian ally like the U.S.  It simply doesn’t work.

Hard action might. Blinken should publicly explain that withholding the funding is the start of a root-and-branch review of the U.S. relationship with both the Egyptian government and civil society, to build one where the U.S. insists on the end of torture in Egyptian prisons and of the targeting of human rights defenders.

But right now, Cairo feels little pressure from the U.S. to respect human rights or those who defend them.  On a trip to Washington D.C. in June, Egypt’s spy chief demanded to know why the U.S. had not imprisoned Egyptian-American human rights defender Mohamed Soltan, claiming his incarceration without charges of any U.S. crime was part of a 2015 deal when Soltan was released from prison in Egypt and returned to America.

Were human rights even near the periphery of U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt, let alone at its center, Secretary Blinken would have no choice but to deny Egypt that money until the government made major strides on human rights protections. 

If the status quo persists in U.S, policy, a bleak status quo will persist in Egypt.  Blinken may have met with Hossam Bahgat in April, but last week Egyptian authorities summoned him and other human rights defenders for questioning in a decade-old criminal case used to harass activists, and also told him he’ll stand trial in September for tweeting his criticism of the government.