Prioritizing U.S. national security interests over human rights, the Biden administration has approved $235 million in military aid for Egypt that it had withheld for the past two years because of the country’s repressive policies.
The decision means that the United States will withhold just a small fraction — $85 million — of the $1.3 billion in military aid earmarked annually for Egypt. It also reflects a decision by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other officials in the administration that America’s relationship with the most populous country in the region is too important to risk fracturing despite pleas from human rights activists for a much harder line from Washington.
Explaining the decision on Thursday, State Department officials said the United States continued to have serious concerns about human rights in Egypt, which has been ruled by a repressive military government for a decade.
The officials insisted that the approval of the $235 million does not reflect any less emphasis by the Biden administration on human rights. They noted that Mr. Blinken raised the cases of political prisoners and other abuses with Egyptian leaders during a visit to Cairo in January and will continue to press those issues.
But they conceded that Mr. Blinken had issued a waiver to release the previously withheld money because he concluded that U.S. national security interests outweigh congressionally mandated benchmarks for Egyptian progress on human rights.
As an example of Egypt’s contributions to American national security, one senior State Department official cited a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise, Bright Star 2023, which was conducted over the past two weeks. The U.S. military described the exercise as focused on “counterterrorism, regional security, and the efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism.”
The officials also noted Egypt’s role in trying to mediate a cease-fire in Sudan’s civil conflict and support of elections in Libya.
Mr. Blinken did draw one line, refusing to approve an $85 million tranche of aid that Congress has tied to Egypt’s record on releasing political prisoners, preventing harassment of U.S. citizens and providing detainees with due process. That amounts to about a 6.5 percent cut in military aid to Egypt for the coming fiscal year.
Mai El-Sadany, the executive director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said the Biden administration’s decision to withhold $85 million in aid from Egypt was welcome but did not go far enough.
“What we are seeing in Egypt is far from meaningful progress on human rights,” she said. “Failing to condition the full amount allowed under the law will provide cover to Egyptian authorities which they will weaponize to justify and intensify this continued repression mere months ahead of scheduled presidential elections.”
The decision is also sure to frustrate many Washington lawmakers who have been pressing for a harder stance on human rights issues.
On Aug. 10, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and 10 other members of the committee sent a letter to Mr. Blinken urging that Egypt be denied any conditions-based foreign military funding.
The letter cited reports of “persistent and continued systemic violations of human rights in Egypt,” including the detention and abuse of thousands of “journalists, peaceful civil society activists, human rights defenders and political figures.”
The lawmakers urged Mr. Blinken to withhold both the $235 million and $85 million tranches of conditional military aid — $320 million in all — “until Egypt’s human rights record significantly improves.” (The remaining $980 billion in annual U.S. military aid is not subject to human rights conditions.)
There is little sign of that happening soon.
With its popularity sinking amid a deep economic crisis, the Egyptian government has made some nominal gestures toward greater political inclusiveness. Egypt formed a presidential pardon committee last year to oversee the releases of hundreds of political prisoners and started a “national dialogue” with political opponents and some activists to discuss a new direction for the country. It has also freed several high-profile dissidents in recent months, including Ahmed Douma, a prominent face of Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution, and Mohamed el-Baqer, a rights lawyer.
But the authorities continue to arrest people for perceived opposition to the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, including, in recent weeks, some who had been released from detention years ago and others whose only offense appeared to be being closely related to known dissidents. Rights groups say Egypt is arresting three people for every prisoner who is released.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading rights group, announced on Thursday that it was dropping out of the dialogue at least temporarily after Mohamed Zahran, a founder of Egypt’s teacher’s union who had participated in the dialogue, was detained in late August.
Egypt’s human rights crisis, the group said in a statement, had “reached unprecedented levels.”
After the State Department announcement, Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, called the decision “a missed opportunity to show the world that our commitment to advancing human rights and democracy is more than a talking point.”
Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington.