WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Tuesday told Egypt that human rights will be “central” to its policy in dealing with the key Arab state and major American partner in the Middle East.
The pronouncement came just a week after the administration approved a nearly $200 million missile sale to Egypt despite concerns about Cairo’s jailing of dissidents, including American citizens and their families. It was not immediately clear how the new emphasis on human rights would manifest itself. The Trump administration had largely given Egypt's leadership a pass on human rights.
In addition to rights issues, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in a phone call on Tuesday that the U.S. is looking closely at Egyptian plans to buy advanced fighter jets from Russia. The timeframe for the jets' delivery has not yet been set, but the U.S. in 2019 warned that Egypt risks American sanctions if it purchases them.
“The secretary raised concerns over human rights, which he emphasized would be central to the U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship, and Egypt’s potential procurement of Su-35 fighter aircraft from Russia,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Price said Blinken had underscored the U.S. commitment to Egypt's security and role as a stabilizing force in the volatile region and pledged to continue support for Egyptian counterterrorism cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt, along with Israel and Jordan, is one of the largest Mideast recipients of American economic and military aid, but in recent years U.S. lawmakers have sought to condition that assistance on human rights improvements and reforms.
Just a week ago, the Biden administration raised eyebrows and some alarm from human rights activists when it signed off on the $197 million sale of tactical missiles and associated engineering, technical and logistics support.
The Feb. 16 announcement, which followed months of consultations between Cairo and the Trump administration, was made amid a continuing crackdown on dissidents by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government.
On Monday, el-Sissi met with Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command. El-Sissi’s office said he expressed his commitment to Egypt-U.S. cooperation, particularly the well-established military cooperation, while the U.S. Embassy said they discussed shared security concerns and agreed on the strategic nature of the defense relationship.
“Our defense relationship has endured — and will continue — for the benefit of both our great nations,” Gen. McKenzie was quoted as saying.
Egyptian authorities have in recent years conducted a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, mainly Islamists, but also several well-known secular activists.
Egypt this month released some prominent activists and journalists. However, rights groups accused authorities of targeting families of activists and rights defenders living abroad, in an apparent attempt to intimidate critics.
Earlier Tuesday, Egyptian authorities released a university professor and activist after he spent more than a year in pre-trail detention. Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, was freed pending an investigation into allegations he disseminated false news and joined an outlawed group, according to his lawyer.