Today, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that for the first time links US assistance to Egypt to Cairo’s military relationship with North Korea.
Buried in the massive $1.3 trillion bill to fund the government through Sept. 30 is a provision that sets new conditions on US aid to Egypt ahead of next week’s election, in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is all but guaranteed re-election. The bill conditions a greater portion of military assistance to progress on human rights, while seeking to shed light on shady dealings with Pyongyang that have harmed an otherwise chummy relationship between Trump and Sisi.
The bill requires the secretary of state to certify that Egypt is making progress on human rights to unlock $300 million out of $1.3 billion in annual military aid, up from $195 million previously. If the certification can’t be made, the Trump administration can exercise a national security waiver to unlock the $300 million. But it must then report to Congress on a number of issues, including Cairo’s compliance with UN Security Council resolutions opposing North Korea arms sales and weapons smuggling.
“Egypt may be working with the North Koreans on the contravention of sanctions that apply to North Korea,” said Andrew Miller, the deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“The thinking is almost certainly that if you’re going to do the waiver … [lawmakers] are going to ask the State Department to argue why,” Miller told Al-Monitor. “It’s not in the interest of the United States to provide aid to a nation that is one of our sworn enemies.”
The provision comes amid reports that Egypt has purchased North Korean arms while allowing Pyongyang’s embassy in Cairo to serve as a conduit for arms sales throughout the region. Trump raised the issue in a call with Sisi last July, a message that was reinforced a month later when Tillerson withheld $195 million in military aid.
“It’s well known that the North Korean dimension was one of the reasons why the money … was withheld in the first place,” Miller said. He suggested, however, that it would have been more effective for Congress to directly tie aid payments to progress on the North Korea issue.
Egyptian-American democracy activists who have been lobbying for Congress to press Sisi on human rights ahead of the election applauded the legislation.
“Congress has stepped up to its responsibility of making sure that our tax dollars are not being used for any human rights violations,” said Mohamed Soltan, a former Egyptian political prisoner who last week co-led a push to bolster the human rights conditions on aid to Egypt.
Congress has sought to affect Cairo’s behavior by placing conditions on military aid ever since the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. To date, neither the Barack Obama nor Trump administrations have certified Egyptian compliance.
This year, House appropriators sought to remove human rights requirements while maintaining Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion in annual military aid. The Senate by contrast sought to cut the annual contribution to $1 billion, of which $250 million would have been tied to human rights progress.
The end compromise that Trump signed into law “obviously represents increased concern within Congress regarding the political trajectory within Egypt on human rights and the absence of any type of political reform,” Miller said.
US lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record under Sisi. They’ve been particularly vocal about the recent passage of a nongovernmental organization law that they say has been used to crack down on dissent ahead of the March 26 presidential election.
Just this week, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., partnered with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to introduce a resolution that notes a “lack of progress” in “human rights, civil liberties and rule of law in Egypt” while urging Cairo “to take meaningful steps to enable free, fair, credible and peaceful elections.”