JOHANNESBURG, August 24 – It appears the honeymoon between Egypt and the United States is over after Washington announced it would be withholding $195m in military aid and cutting a further $96m in other assistance over human rights abuses in the North African country.
Cairo responded to the announcement accusing US President Donald Trump’s administration of “poor judgement” on Wednesday.
Egypt’s response came shortly before Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in the capital for talks.
The American move was prompted by Sisi recently ratifying a new law regulating NGOs, the BBC reported on Thursday.
The law states that NGOs are prohibited from conducting activities that “harm national security, public order, public morality or public health”. The law strictly controls their funding, and allows the Egyptian government to monitor their activities.
Those found in violation of the law face punishment of one to five years in prison and a fine ranging from $2,820 to $56,400.
Earlier in the year eight Egyptian civil society organisations warned that the NGO legislation ushered in “unprecedented levels of repression” and would criminalise the work of many NGOs in Egypt, making it impossible for them to function independently”.
The NGO law was ratified despite Egyptian officials assuring the Americans that the law would not go through.
The Egyptians, however, say the NGO law was necessary to protect national security and further accused human rights groups of using foreign funds to “sow chaos”.
However, it was not just the new NGO law that has frustrated the Americans but also Cairo’s restriction on civil liberties and critical media in general, all part of a rising tide of a crackdown on dissent.
According to Egyptian rights activists political activists and opponents, civil society and the media have faced the worst crackdown in their history under Sisi while freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring have been erased.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2017 report on Egypt says public criticism of the government remains banned, scores of political protesters have been arrested and detained without trial and human rights organisations have faced travel bans and corruption charges.
“Members of the security forces, particularly the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, continued to routinely torture detainees and forcibly disappeared hundreds of people with little or no accountability for violations of the law,” said HRW.
The stand taken by the Americans reflects a slight backtracking in their relationship with the Egyptians after Sisi paid a visit to Trump in Washington DC in April, where he received praise from the American president. The issue of human rights abuses in Egypt was not brought up.
Washington appears to be attempting to walk a fine line. The US still wants to maintain security cooperation with Egypt, which is fighting an Islamic State (IS)-affiliated insurgency in both the restive Sinai province and on the mainland.
Americans regard the country as an important partner in the Middle East due to its border with Israel and its control over the Suez Canal. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.
However, the Trump administration can not continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Egypt.
“Under US law, the administration is required to withhold 15 percent, or $195m, of the $1.3bn it gives Egypt annually in FMF funds unless it can certify that Cairo is making progress on advancing human rights and democracy,” Al Jazeera reported.
However, the US administration can issue a national security waiver that allows the funds to go through.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson felt “it was in the interests of the US to exercise the waiver”.