Congress, Biden Duke It Out Over Egypt Aid

The administration says it stands for human rights—but may be readying to resist some cuts to Egypt’s $1.3 billion annual military subsidy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
US President Joe Biden (R) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) attend a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022.
US President Joe Biden (R) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) attend a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attend a meeting at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

A battle is brewing between the Biden administration and Congress over military aid to a crucial but autocratic ally in the Middle East, a fight that drives at the heart of values in U.S. foreign policy and President Joe Biden’s vows to stand up to dictators and defend human rights abroad.

And in classic Washington fashion, that battle is being fought in the most boring and indirect way possible: on Page 313, Section 7019 of a 716-page congressional appropriations bill. 

The dispute centers on U.S. military aid to Egypt, an annual allotment that has amounted to tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars over decades. Nearly every year, for around 35 years, the United States has sent $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt to shore up the geopolitically important U.S.-Egypt relationship and help stabilize uneasy ties between Egypt and Washington’s most important Middle Eastern ally, Israel. In recent years, Congress laid out a rule that a portion of that funding—around $300 million—should be conditioned on the Egyptian government upholding some basic human rights conditions. But a built-in waiver allows the president to waive that rule on national security grounds. And nearly every year, the president has used that waiver to keep that $1.3 billion tradition rolling.

A battle is brewing between the Biden administration and Congress over military aid to a crucial but autocratic ally in the Middle East, a fight that drives at the heart of values in U.S. foreign policy and President Joe Biden’s vows to stand up to dictators and defend human rights abroad.

And in classic Washington fashion, that battle is being fought in the most boring and indirect way possible: on Page 313, Section 7019 of a 716-page congressional appropriations bill. 

The dispute centers on U.S. military aid to Egypt, an annual allotment that has amounted to tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars over decades. Nearly every year, for around 35 years, the United States has sent $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt to shore up the geopolitically important U.S.-Egypt relationship and help stabilize uneasy ties between Egypt and Washington’s most important Middle Eastern ally, Israel. In recent years, Congress laid out a rule that a portion of that funding—around $300 million—should be conditioned on the Egyptian government upholding some basic human rights conditions. But a built-in waiver allows the president to waive that rule on national security grounds. And nearly every year, the president has used that waiver to keep that $1.3 billion tradition rolling.

A growing chorus of human rights groups and lawmakers, particularly on the Democratic Party’s progressive flank, want Biden to send a message to Egypt that the United States won’t accept the status quo of sending the same amount of military assistance, in light of Egypt’s dismal record on human rights. They argue that by doing anything less, Biden is caving on an important human rights promise made during his presidential campaign. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” Biden tweeted in July 2020 in a clear reference to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took over Egypt in 2013.

“The human rights situation in Egypt is just as terrible as it was before Biden came into office, as it was last year, as it is now,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Sisi is one of the most brutal dictators in the world.”

On the other side are hawkish lawmakers, along with a cohort of Middle East experts staffing key positions in the Biden administration, who believe that Egypt remains an important ally in the Middle East, even in light of Sisi’s increasingly autocratic rule and draconian crackdown on political dissent. Egypt, these officials argue, cooperates with Washington on counterterrorism and helps the region maintain a stable balance with Israel—most recently when Cairo helped broker a cease-fire this month between Israel and Palestinian militants after a flare-up of violence in Gaza. Cutting military aid to Egypt, this camp of officials argues, could end up poisoning the well on U.S.-Egypt relations, drive Cairo closer to geopolitical rivals like Russia and China, and ultimately do little to alter Sisi’s record on human rights. 

With U.S. ties flagging in the decade since the Arab Spring and Sisi’s brutal rise, Egypt, the world’s third-largest arms importer, has begun to rekindle relations with Russia. The two sides have reached cooperation agreements to upgrade Egypt’s aging fighter jet fleet to MiG-29Ms and reportedly have begun cooperating on nuclear energy, further unnerving Washington. U.S. officials have even complained in the past that their Egyptian counterparts have allowed the Russian military—without U.S. permission—to inspect U.S. jets that periodically fly into Egypt. (The United States is also trying to move ahead with the sale of F-15 fighter jets to Egypt.) Some experts argue that Washington should do everything it can to prevent Cairo from cozying up to Moscow any further.

“Cairo considers the $1.3 billion to be an earmark—it’s their money,” said David Schenker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Trump administration and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re aggrieved and insulted by the withholding of any funds. Egypt traditionally has looked to other suppliers.”

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a supporter of continued U.S. aid to Egypt and a staunch critic of the president, rebuked some of his fellow lawmakers and Biden for “aiming to cut off aid Egyptian allies use to fight terrorism” in an emailed statement to Foreign Policy. “Biden’s foreign policy is shifting from incoherent to deliberately damaging America’s security interests,” he added.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The debate, brewing between different factions of the State Department and National Security Council, as well as Capitol Hill, reflects a constant tension within the Biden administration on whether and how to prioritize human rights in the face of other pressing geopolitical priorities. 

“There’s a real chance [cutting military funding] could fracture the relationship between Washington and Cairo in a really significant way,” said Thomas Hill, an expert on U.S.-Middle East relations at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Still, there’s an argument to be made that this relationship isn’t as important as it used to be, that Egypt hasn’t been a good friend to the U.S., and it’s ignoring these pushes on upholding human rights.” 

The debate over military aid to Egypt comes on the heels of a trip by Biden to Saudi Arabia last month, in which he feted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump during a meeting to address rising global oil prices. Human rights organizations lambasted Biden for backtracking on a presidential campaign pledge to stand up to Saudi Arabia on human rights after the crown prince was directly implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and legal U.S. resident. 

“We’re hopeful and excited about the positive rhetoric on emphasizing human rights we see from this administration,” said Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director at the Human Rights Watch advocacy organization. “But that needs to be followed up with real actions.”

This debate also offers a glimpse into the messy process of U.S. foreign policymaking, as some lawmakers try to outmaneuver the Biden administration’s efforts to protect military funding for Egypt in the pages of lengthy and convoluted appropriations bills. 

Last year, the Biden administration in effect tried to split the difference between cutting all the $300 million in conditional military funding for Egypt or cutting none of it. The administration withheld $130 million from Egypt over human rights concerns, an amount that fell far short of the $300 million cut that human rights groups were pushing for. (This year, it also approved a separate $2.5 billion in arms sales to Egypt.)

The State Department justified that cut by citing a provision in a congressional appropriations bill—Section 7019, to be precise—that said, in effect, that the administration can’t deviate from annual spending plans on foreign military funding by more than 10 percent of what is outlined in an accompanying table in the appropriations bill. According to this interpretation, the administration couldn’t cut more than $130 million, or 10 percent, of the $1.3 billion in military aid planned for Egypt.

But that interpretation left some human rights advocates and lawmakers, including important allies on Capitol Hill from Biden’s own party, fuming. Because another section of the massive appropriations bill—Section 7041—added an asterisk to that 10 percent rule, in effect carving out an exception that allowed steeper funding cuts if there were significant human rights concerns in question. These lawmakers argue that the State Department selectively followed one part of the bill that minimized the cuts to Egypt and ignored another important part of the bill that would have led to steeper cuts to Egypt.

In the process, they argue, the Biden administration sent a message to Sisi and other dictators that the president’s tough talk about standing up for human rights globally was just that—all talk.

“Listen, I’m glad the administration refused to certify Egypt has met the human rights conditions in the law, but this decision today is a half-hearted implementation of the statute,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, at the time of the decision in September 2021. “Other dictators and aspiring dictators notice when America talks tough on human rights but doesn’t follow through with bold action.”

This year, the administration has yet to signal what position it will take on military funding to Egypt. “We do not comment on internal deliberations,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council said. “Egypt is a key strategic partner in our efforts to promote a better-integrated, more secure Middle East region. For example, it just played a critical role in establishing a cease-fire in Israel and Gaza after three days of conflict.”

“Respect for human rights is also a key principle of our foreign policy,” the spokesperson added. 

But multiple officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter say the administration plans to again try to limit the amount of military funding it cuts to Egypt this year. In Congress, critics are readying to fight fire with bureaucratic fire. They are working to outmaneuver the Biden administration on its legal interpretation of how much aid to cut to Egypt through a wonky move of their own: cutting any mentions of Egypt out of that foreign military funding table in the appropriations bill. “Congress has closed this loophole, which we felt was legally dubious to begin with,” said one senior congressional aide familiar with the matter.

But—and there’s always a “but” in the obscure and convoluted world of congressional appropriations—U.S. military funding for Egypt is portioned out in two-year increments. Because the Biden administration is still working off the appropriations bill from a year ago, it could use the same legal interpretation of being allowed to cut only a maximum of $130 million again this year, albeit for the last time, before the new appropriations language comes into effect for future fiscal years. Confused yet? So is almost everyone else. 

Either way, the battle is likely to be settled during congressional and administration negotiations over government funding next month. In the process, the administration will send another signal to its allies and critics alike about how and where it prioritizes human rights in its foreign-policy platform. 

“Holding back $130 million is a good start, but it’s not nearly enough,” said Human Rights Watch’s Widdersheim. “And the fact that this is so possibly difficult to get the administration to do more is kind of mind-boggling.”

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

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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