US policymakers shouldn’t be fooled by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent call to review Egypt’s draconian 2017 NGO law, which effectively criminalized non-governmental groups and set the path for “unprecedented” repression in the country. Members of Congress should instead focus on the relentless crackdown on civil society under Sisi’s rule, including the near-absolute ban on peaceful assembly as well as the arbitrary arrests, alleged torture, and enforced disappearances of dissidents and peaceful activists.
The Trump administration’s primary objective with Egypt is to reset the bilateral relationship. In August 2017, under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, human rights concerns led to the State Department withholding $195 million in military aid and redirecting another $95.7 million in other assistance. Officials specifically cited the signing of the NGO law in May 2017 as the reason for the cutback.
But since Tillerson’s March 2018 departure, the US has reverted to an approach where human rights concerns are downplayed. In July, the funds held back by Tillerson were released to Egypt.
Congress, on the other hand, has a long, bipartisan history of supporting human rights in Egypt. At the time of the NGO law’s signing in May 2017 Senators John McCain (R-AZ), recently deceased, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called for strengthened democracy and human rights benchmarks on Egypt aid. US budget bills have, for years, included restrictions on military aid to Egypt related to improvements on democracy, human rights, and rule of law.
But Egypt’s draconian NGO law is on the books now and no review, without tangible action by the government, should be seen as a positive move. The only meaningful sign of progress would be repeal of the law.
US policymakers should not be fooled by Egypt’s clumsy attempts to dissipate political pressure to improve its rights record. Real progress can’t be achieved until Egyptian authorities end the prosecutions of rights groups and activists, and release everyone detained arbitrarily, including American citizens.
The Trump administration has abdicated the US’ role on human rights in Egypt. As lawmakers seeks to move budget bills during the lame duck, the period after the midterm elections before the new Congress is seated, they should utilize their control of the purse strings to promote real and meaningful change.