cairo criticism

Cardin’s Egypt aid freeze follows his long record of criticism of human rights issues

The new Foreign Relations Committee chair’s criticisms of Cairo date back well before the recent corruption scandal that engulfed his predecessor, Sen. Bob Menendez

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Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) move this week to block the provision of $235 million in military aid to Egypt caught the attention of Washington, given that his predecessor, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), has been accused of a corrupt relationship with the Egyptian government and its surrogates.

But Cardin’s move to freeze aid to Cairo was not particularly surprising given his record of criticism of the U.S. partner’s human rights record — both in recent months and dating back years — predating the Menendez indictment. Cardin’s concerns about releasing this portion of aid to Egypt without improvements in its human rights record are well-documented.

“I am disappointed by Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken’s decision yesterday to release $235 million in Fiscal Year 2022 military aid to Egypt that the law requires be withheld because of egregious and continuing human rights violations by that government,” Cardin said last month when the State Department announced it would allow most U.S. aid to Egypt to proceed. “This decision further emboldens the regime to continue business as usual – without any improvement on human rights or attempts at systemic change.”

He joined a letter this summer calling on the administration to withhold a portion of U.S. aid to Egypt. Earlier this year, Cardin grilled a senior State Department official over the administration’s opposition to human rights conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt, telling the official that the department had put Congress “in a difficult position.”

Cardin’s criticisms of Egyptian human rights and corruption date back years. In July, he took to the Senate floor to call for the release of an Egyptian political prisoner; he highlighted another political prisoner case the following month.

“There’s a lot of things you can say about the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, and there are a lot of strategic areas that we need to talk about on security and those issues,” Cardin said in 2017. “But clearly the reforms in Egypt need to be [at] the forefront of that discussion. Otherwise we’re again going to run into the problems of whether this government can maintain stability in a very important country in the Middle East.”

The funds that Cardin is holding are a limited portion of the more than $1 billion that has been appropriated annually for Egypt. But the decision could still have impacts on the bilateral relationship.

“Egypt overplayed its hand and Congress has the right to be outraged,” Haisam Hassanein, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Jewish Insider, referring to the Menendez scandal. “There must be some form of consequences for the Egyptians to make sure they don’t repeat this again while taking into account the geopolitical considerations that govern U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship.”

Regarding the human rights situation in Egypt, he added, “Egypt is going through the worst repression since the 1960s and the Congress has the ultimate right to be outraged.”

U.S.-Egypt cooperation is a critical pillar of the U.S.’ regional policy, he explained, given that Egypt allows the U.S. to overfly its territory and freely use the Suez Canal; shares intelligence and cooperates in counterterrorism efforts; and is member of the Negev Forum and a critical mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

As a result of the aid hold, “the anti-America[n] camp will be empowered domestically,” Hassanein predicted, and will publicly push for Egypt to increase its relations with Russia and China — already a sensitive subject in the bilateral relationship in the current era of great-power competition. 

“This could force President [Abdel Fattah El-]Sisi in his current election campaign to release some [inflammatory] statements to save face in front of his constituents,” Hassanein said.

Given the relatively strong ties between Cairo and Jerusalem, however, Hassanein predicted that this disruption in the U.S.-Israel relationship will not impact the Egypt-Israel relationship. He highlighted the ongoing cooperation between the two nations on counterterrorism in the Sinai, as well as Israel’s work to defend Sisi in Washington when he first came to power in 2013.

Egypt is not the only country to which Cardin is seeking to curtail U.S. military assistance. In response to Azerbaijan’s recent moves to take over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and expel ethnic Armenians from the territory, Cardin said on Wednesday that the U.S. “should halt security assistance to Azerbaijan until it has stopped this brutal campaign.” 

Azerbaijan has been a major purchaser of Israeli arms, which have seen significant use in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“Following nearly a year of a horrific blockade, President Aliyev finally used military power to exert control over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, effectively erasing its Armenian population and rich history,” Cardin said in a statement. “As the world continues to grapple with Azerbaijan’s coordinated, intentional campaign of ethnic cleansing, we must both prioritize support for the Armenians who have been expelled as well as holding Azerbaijan accountable.”

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