BEIRUT — Two weeks after the US State department shifted $85 million in military aid away from Egypt, US legislators are threatening to cut the aid altogether as concerns over human rights rise in the North African country.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who just last week took over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said over the weekend he would block aid and arms sales unless Cairo took concrete steps to improve its human rights record.
“It is imperative that we continue to hold the government of Egypt, and all governments, accountable for their human rights violations,” Cardin said in a statement, according to Reuters.
His comments follow a similar threat from Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-NY, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said he is pushing the Biden administration to withhold $320 million in military aid for Egypt.
If the Democrats are able to follow through on their threats, it would push Egyptian authorities to either attempt to assuage the human rights concerns — or look elsewhere for some or all of the $1.3 billion in annual military funding it currently receives from Washington.
Cardin’s concerns come with context. Last week, Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who has long led the foreign affairs committee, was accused of accepting bribes to use his influence in aiding Egypt’s government; his ouster from the committee is what elevated Cardin, a staunch advocate on human rights, to the top chair. Menendez has denied wrongdoing.
This is not the first time human rights stand as an obstacle in front of Egypt’s military aid. In October 2022, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT., blocked $75 million in military aid for Cairo over human rights concerns and the holding of political prisoners. Similar steps were taken by the US in 2020 and 2017 to withhold aid. And from 2013 to 2015, the Obama administration froze a number of deals after the Egyptian military overthrew the government.
Egypt has been awarded a number of considerable military deals from the US in the last few years. On Jan. 26, 2022, US State Department cleared a remarkable $2.5 billion possible military sale for Egypt to procure 12 Super Hercules C-130 and air defense radar systems.
In May 2022, Egypt was awarded a contract to procure 23 CH-47F Chinook helicopters worth $2.6 billion. Earlier, President Donald Trump’s administration cleared $ 2.3 billion deal to refurbish 43 Apache attack helicopters to Cairo.
Alternative Sources For Egypt?
If the US cuts military aid to Egypt, it’s possible Cairo would look elsewhere for support — although that may be more a feint than a serious effort, analysts said.
Egypt has been looking for different sources of armaments for some time now, and it has signed a $1.7 billion deal in 2022 to procure K9 self-propelled howitzers from South Korea. China has reportedly also been in negotiations with Egypt for possible military sales, but no deal has yet to materialize.
“US-Egypt relations have remained tense for nearly a decade, with recent comments regarding US military aid to Egypt following a similar pattern. Nevertheless, I don’t believe Egypt will fully shift to Russia and China,” Mohammed Soliman, director of the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Middle East Institute, told Breaking Defense.
Soliman expected that Egypt may try to hedge its bets, much like regional powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in response to the emerging multipolar world order.
“Cairo is unlikely to align itself more closely with one camp than the other, with a preference for Washington due to structural reasons and the deep-rooted nature of their relationship,” he added.
“The halt of assistance will affect issues like spare parts, repair (important) and continuation of training programs which are not critical,” Mohammed Baharoon, general director of B’huth, a Dubai-based public policy research center, told Breaking Defense.
But while Egypt may reach out to China, Baharoon is skeptical it will have short-term impacts. “I don’t think immediately but on the longer run this may gradually happen but it also depends on whether China see an opportunity it would like to seize,” he said.
Defense expert and Lebanese armed forces retired general Wehbe Katicha expects any cut to be temporary and not long-lasting.
“Egypt operates western origin defense systems, and what it has from Russian defense systems are outdated and have limited data sharing capabilities with it’s modern fleets from the US,” Katicha told Breaking Defense.
He added that is the military aid to Egypt were stopped this will negatively affect its defense capabilities according to the time span of the embargo.
“Cairo’s strategic choices, from leading the Red Sea Navy Task Force to speculation about sending ammunition to Ukraine, largely align with Washington,” Soliman told Breaking Defense.