Lawmakers Warn Egyptian Leader Over Human Rights Abuses

A bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter directly to Sisi that appeared to suggest security assistance could be in jeopardy.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi participates in a G-20 Africa conference in Berlin on June 12, 2017. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi participates in a G-20 Africa conference in Berlin on June 12, 2017. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received a warm reception from U.S. President Donald Trump during his visit to Washington this week, but a much colder one from Congress.

Four top lawmakers, two Democrats and two Republicans, sent a letter directly to Sisi on Monday ahead of his visit to the White House highlighting concerns over human rights issues and Egypt’s failure to adhere to requirements for its U.S. security assistance.

The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, criticizes Sisi’s crackdown against political dissent even as Trump embraces him as an ally on countering terrorism and facing down Iran.

Lawmakers often send letters on human rights and other foreign-policy issues to the U.S. president or administration officials, but it is unusual—though not unprecedented—for them to directly correspond with a foreign leader.

The letter, quoting a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, said Egypt “failed ‘to provide regular access for U.S. officials to monitor such assistance in areas where the assistance is used.’” The lawmakers urged Sisi to allow U.S. diplomats to visit the Sinai Peninsula and track how Egypt is using U.S. military aid.

Though the letter struck a diplomatic and legalistic tone, one former U.S. official who worked on Middle East issues said it signaled that Egypt’s $1.3 billion in U.S. security assistance could be in jeopardy if it didn’t start complying with the requirements. It did not explicitly mention cutting off any funding or support.

“This letter tells Sisi that there are significant pockets of Washington that don’t think the [security assistance] deal is working,” the former official said.

It “strikes at the one issue that Sisi cares about: the [military] bilateral relationship,” the former official said. “Sisi doesn’t care if people think he’s a dictator. What he cares about is access to U.S. weapons and the stamp of approval from [the White House and] Congress.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas)—the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the chairman and ranking member respectively of the subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism.

“We recognize that your country faces legitimate security threats, and we want to ensure that U.S. assistance is being used to address these threats,” the lawmakers wrote. The four representatives called on Sisi to address reports of “arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances” and urged him to release U.S. citizens who were detained in Sisi’s sweeping crackdown on dissent.

The offices of the four lawmakers who wrote the letter did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Neither did the Egyptian Embassy.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel. Together, the two countries receive about three-quarters of total U.S. military aid doled out around the world each year.

In the six meetings between Trump and Sisi since 2016, the Egyptian president has lavished praise on Trump in an effort to curry favor and maintain the flow of aid. “I think Sisi understands that’s the way to cultivate Trump’s support,” said Michele Dunne, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Egypt with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In the eyes of critics, it’s working. The Trump administration, some rights groups say, has swept Sisi’s human rights violations under the rug. “We’ve never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now,” Trump told reporters as he met Sisi in the Oval Office on Tuesday.

Human rights advocates say thousands of political opponents are being systematically detained without trial, some of whom face torture and the death penalty. Egypt’s security forces, for example, have killed over 460 people they said were extremists or criminals in shootouts since 2015. But a new Reuters investigation indicates some of those men may have simply been supporters of political movements opposed to Sisi, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since orchestrating a military coup in 2013 and formally taking office in 2014, Sisi has consolidated his grip on the country. He is ramming through constitutional reforms allowing him to stay in power through 2034.

When asked about Sisi’s push to stay in power on Tuesday, Trump said: “I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he’s doing a great job.” He added that Sisi is a “great person.”

It was a political gift for the Egyptian strongman in the run-up to a public referendum on the constitutional changes. “President Trump appears to be putting an American stamp of approval on these constitutional amendments,” Dunne said. “He’s doing Sisi an enormous favor by hosting him.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the cozy U.S. relationship with Egypt in a Senate hearing on Tuesday. He sidestepped opportunities to criticize Sisi in a line of questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asking for comparisons between human rights abuses in Venezuela, North Korea, and Egypt. “There’s no doubt that it’s a mean, nasty world out there, but not every one of these leaders is the same,” Pompeo said.

“There’s no doubt the Egyptians have been an important security partner,” he added. “[Sisi] has also been remarkably good with respect to religious freedom … he has been a remarkable beacon in the Middle East for religious freedom.”

Some $300 million of the $1.3 billion U.S. security assistance to Egypt is contingent on human rights issues. But in years past, the president has circumvented those restrictions under a “national security waiver,” citing Egypt’s crucial role in countering terrorist groups and other threats in the Middle East. In 2018, the Trump administration released $195 million to Egypt that it had held up over its human rights record, arguing it had made progress on some issues.

Congress, however, is gradually souring on the Egyptian regime and may push to pare back aid further. On Monday, 17 U.S. senators, including Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the committee, sent Pompeo a letter pressing the administration to discuss “the erosion of political and human rights” in Egypt when Sisi visited Washington. They also raised concerns over Cairo’s plan to buy 20 Russian fighter jets, which could open up Egypt to U.S. sanctions.

It’s part of a broader trend of Capitol Hill stepping up to be Washington’s voice on human rights even as Trump retreats from the matter, according to Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.

“If you are a Middle Eastern ruler, you know that Congress is always going to be around, and many of these lawmakers are around far longer than a U.S. president is,” Nassif said. “The U.S. Congress is signaling to the regime that if you don’t shape up, we’re going to escalate with bills that will hold you far more accountable than these letters you see today.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer