By Phil Stewart and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO – A top U.S. general emphasized “very robust” military assistance to Egypt as he flew into Cairo on Wednesday in the wake of a decision by President Joe Biden administration’s to cut $130 million in military aid to the country over human rights concerns.
The rare U.S. censure of a geostrategic ally that controls the Suez Canal followed Egypt’s failure to address specific human rights-related conditions, which have never been publicly detailed by Washington. Activists have said those U.S. conditions included the release of people seen as political prisoners.
General Frank McKenzie, who as head of U.S. Central Command is the top American military commander in the Middle East region, underscored rights concerns in comments to reporters shortly before landing. McKenzie also stressed that the cut in military assistance announced on Jan. 28 did not represent a large part of the $1.3 billion allocated by the United States for Egypt.
“Compared to the amount of other money that’s in play, it’s a very small amount. But I think it’s intended to be a signal,” McKenzie said.
“We still have a very robust weapons program with Egypt and we’re still very heavily engaged with them,” McKenzie added.
McKenzie, who is the most senior U.S. official to visit Cairo since Washington announced the aid cut, does not plan to shy away from America’s human rights concerns in talks with Egypt.
“At the (military) level, we need to be honest with each other about factors that can influence the relationship. Clearly that’s a factor that can influence the relationship,” McKenzie said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former Army chief, has been criticized for crushing dissent since coming to power after leading the 2013 ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi of the now-banned Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sisi and his supporters have said security measures were necessary to stabilise the country. Authorities have recently published a lengthy rights strategy, appointed a national human rights council and lifted a state of emergency in place since 2017, though critics have rejected these steps as cosmetic.
U.S. officials have said the American relationship with Egypt is complex. The most-populous Arab country is a vital ally and key voice in the Arab world. U.S. military officials have long stressed Egypt’s role expediting the passage of U.S. warships through the Suez Canal and granting overflight for American military aircraft.
Rights groups welcomed the Biden administration’s announcement of the aid cut. But some saw it as just a slap on the wrist since it closely followed U.S. approval of an arms package worth more than $2.5 billion for air defence radars and C-130 Super Hercules planes.
Despite deep ties to the U.S. military, Egypt has moved to diversify its sources of arms after then-U.S. President Barack Obama in 2013 froze delivery of some military aid to Egypt after Mursi’s overthrow.
Egypt’s imports of arms from Russia, France, Germany and Italy have surged, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Any major arms purchase from Russia could trigger U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, known as CAATSA, U.S. officials have said.
“My message will be the inherent superiority of U.S. (weapons) systems and our desire to maintain a close partnership with Egypt, which would necessarily be affected if they executed large weapons sales with Russia,” McKenzie said.