After Death of U.S. Citizen, State Department Floats Slashing Egypt Aid
The United States continues sending military aid to Egypt despite its worsening human rights situation. Could the death of a detained American change that?
The State Department recently raised the idea of slashing a significant chunk of Egypt’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid after a U.S. citizen died in an Egyptian jail in January, four sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
In a memo sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by the agency’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in early March and described to Foreign Policy, the nation’s most senior diplomat was given the option to cut up to $300 million in U.S. military aid to Egypt over the death of Mustafa Kassem, a dual American and Egyptian citizen who appealed unsuccessfully to U.S. President Donald Trump to secure his release in his final days.
The move could spark an effort to punish Egypt, a long-standing U.S. strategic ally, in Congress. In a letter sent late last month, Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy and Chris Van Hollen also urged Pompeo to withhold $300 million in military assistance to Cairo and to sanction any Egyptian official “directly or indirectly responsible” for Kassem’s imprisonment and death.
In two years on the job, Pompeo has twice decided to overlook human rights considerations to greenlight military aid to Egypt, leading some experts to cast doubt on whether the Trump administration will make cuts even after the death of a U.S. citizen.
But should the administration decide to punish Egypt over Kassem’s death, it would serve as a flash point in an increasingly cozy relationship dating back four decades. Under Trump, the United States has been largely reluctant to challenge Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, which provides the Department of Defense with overflight rights and the ability to navigate the Suez Canal. Egypt has also cooperated with the United States and Israel, Washington’s most important ally in the region, on counterterrorism.
Despite the worsening human rights situation in Egypt, Trump has repeatedly feted and praised his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in bilateral visits and major diplomatic summits. On the sidelines of a G-7 summit in France last August, Trump called out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?” while waiting for a meeting with Sisi. Then, in September, he defended Sisi in the face of an uptick of protests in Egypt. “Everybody has demonstrations,” Trump said as the two leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “No, I’m not concerned with it. Egypt has a great leader.”
Advocates for Kassem are worried that the delay in the Trump administration’s response indicates that it is not prepared to take action. But on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers have seized upon Kassem’s case as another example of Cairo’s mounting human rights violations since Sisi seized power. Kassem had been on a liquid-only hunger strike and had not received proper medical treatment before dying of heart failure in January.
“We recognize that the United States and Egypt share some important interests,” Leahy and Van Hollen wrote in their Feb. 25 letter to Pompeo, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “If we continue business as usual, we will be sending the dangerous message that we will not use our leverage to assist Americans, wrongfully imprisoned in Egypt, including the several that remain in Egyptian prisons today and that we will not hold the Egyptian government accountable when it commits such grave abuses against Americans.”
Leahy and Van Hollen said that they had written a similar letter to Trump on Jan. 16 but had not received a response.
“Some would argue that applying the law in this manner does not go far enough, since the Sisi government would still receive $2 billion in U.S. military assistance in fiscal years 2019 and 2020,” they added. “However, it would send an important message that U.S. assistance is not an entitlement, that the U.S. government is serious about protecting the rights and safety of American citizens, and that we reject the Sisi government’s efforts to undermine the rule of law in Egypt.”
It remains unclear what impact the lawmakers’ appeal had, if any, on the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ recommendations, as they have yet to receive a formal response from the State Department.
In a response to questions from Foreign Policy, a State Department official said the agency would not comment on internal deliberations. “We remain deeply saddened by the needless death in custody of Moustafa Kassem and we are reviewing our options and consulting with Congress,” the official said. “In the wake of the tragic and avoidable death of Moustafa Kassem, we will continue to emphasize to Egypt our concerns regarding the treatment of detainees, including U.S. citizens.”
In his role as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy, a long-standing critic of Egypt’s human rights record, has held up $105 million in military aid to Cairo to purchase Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles. Leahy imposed the funding freeze on Egypt two years ago in response to its detention of Kassem, its failure to fully cover the medical costs for an American citizen wounded in a botched 2015 Apache helicopter raid, and its refusal to permit adequate U.S. oversight of its use of American military assistance in its counterterrorism operations in Sinai.
Under laws passed since the Arab Spring, Congress would freeze $300 million of Egypt’s military aid unless the State Department asserts that Cairo has met a host of human rights conditions—or if it waives the requirement based on national security concerns. Egypt has received about $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance each year since 1979, when it signed a peace deal with Israel brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Though U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made multiple pleas to Sisi to secure the dual Egyptian-American citizen’s release, Kassem’s death did not spark immediate punishment for Cairo from the Trump administration. A senior State Department official told reporters in January it was “premature” to talk about penalties against Egypt for his death.
“Mustafa [Kassem] died after years of suffering and futile U.S. efforts to get President Sisi to ‘do the right thing,’” said Praveen Madhiraju, Kassem’s lawyer and the general counsel at the International Crisis Group. “President Sisi is responsible for Mustafa’s death and the Trump Administration is letting him get away with it. For Mustafa, the several Americans and the thousands of innocent Egyptians who are now in mortal danger, the US must take these first steps that the Senators have outlined.”
In a report sent to Congress obtained by Foreign Policy, the State Department said that Kassem had stopped appeals on his case in an Egyptian court in hopes that authorities would revoke the former New York cab driver’s citizenship and deport him back to the United States. “At the time of [Kassem’s] death on Jan. 13, 2020, all legislative processes regarding his renunciation of his Egyptian citizenship had been completed, and we were waiting for the Ministry of Interior to rule on his citizenship renunciation request,” said the report, sent to Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in late January.
The dual citizen—held without charges for much of his six-year detention—insisted he had been wrongly arrested during an August 2013 visit to his birth country that coincided with the deadly Rabaa Square massacre against demonstrators protesting the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi. Kassem’s advocates said he was not involved in the Rabaa Square demonstrations. He was in prison for over five years before an Egyptian court, without due process, sentenced him to 15 years in prison in 2018.
There are at least three other American citizens—Reem Dessouky, Khaled Hassan, and Mohammed al-Amash—and two permanent residents—Ola Qaradawi and Hossam Khalaf—detained in Egypt on charges related to their political views, according to a bipartisan group of foreign-policy experts called the Working Group on Egypt that tracks the issue.
While other countries, including Iran and Lebanon, have released or temporarily released Americans in their custody due to health and humanitarian reasons, Egypt has so far shown no such inclination.
“It is incomprehensible that Egypt, a close ally of the United States that receives some $1.5 billion annually in assistance from American taxpayers, would be less responsive than Iran, Lebanon, and other countries to repeated calls for the humanitarian release of detained Americans,” the group of experts wrote in a statement released on March 26.
An annual State Department report on human rights released last month tracked numerous reports of the government carrying out arbitrary arrests and unlawful killings, and instances of torture and killings in government prisons and detention centers.
Two other Americans released from Egyptian custody—human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, who was also arrested in August 2013, and nongovernmental organization worker Aya Hijazi—have aired strong public criticisms of Sisi since returning to the United States.
Congressional efforts to hold Egypt accountable for a slew of alleged human rights abuses face significant obstacles. A former U.S. official familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy that Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham stopped a provision in the final version of the State Department’s appropriations bill last year that would have withheld nearly $14 million in military aid until Egypt paid off the medical expenses for April Corley, an American mistakenly injured in an attack by Egyptian military forces in the nation’s western desert in 2015.
“The wild card is Graham,” said Andrew Miller, a deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “This is a portfolio that he holds close to the chest and that he decides himself. What we’re going to have to wait to see is what impact if any Kassem’s death has had on Graham.”
Graham’s office told Foreign Policy that the South Carolina lawmaker is working to resolve Corley’s case but hopes to maintain the U.S. security relationship with Egypt. “Senator Graham has stressed the need to resolve Ms. Corley’s case with both the Egyptian and U.S. governments. He will continue to work to bring the matter to closure,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham. “At the same time, we need to work closely with the Egyptian military in our common fight against the threats to our security.”
But even as Kassem languished in prison despite efforts from Pence and Pompeo to secure his release, the State Department and Pentagon have been working on a high-level proposal to expand U.S. military aid to Egypt by several billion dollars, a congressional source told Foreign Policy. The United States and Egypt set up a structured process of defense meetings to properly resource the nation’s military after the Obama administration suspended aid amid massacres after Morsi’s ouster, but the forum “has long devolved into a grab bag of weapons requests,” said Miller, the Project on Middle East Democracy expert.
Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the United States’ continued delivery of military aid was strengthening the Egyptian military’s political hold over the country under Sisi. “By sending this amount of military assistance for such a long time—when you add it up its $40 billion over decades—what the United States has ended up doing is feeding the beast that’s devouring the whole country,” she said, referring to the Egyptian military.
She said the Egyptian government should face repercussions for the death of an American citizen in its custody and questioned why the Trump administration hadn’t taken action yet.
“I find it deeply troubling that the Egyptian authorities thought there would be no consequences for allowing an American unjustly imprisoned to die a death of despair in an Egyptian prison,” she said. “But now it seems that U.S. officials proved that they were right, that there are no consequences yet.”
Update, March 31, 2020: This article was updated to include comment from a State Department spokesperson.
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer