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US Congress may revisit Egypt human rights record in exchange for Russia snub, report says

Despite Egypt's human rights concerns, congressional report says US may look other way in exchange for procurement of American arms and cancelling of Russian deals
A Lockheed C-130J cargo plane at the French airbase 105 in Evreux, northwest France, on 17 September 2020.
A Lockheed C-130J cargo plane at the Evreux-Fauville Air Base in northwest France, on 17 September 2020 (AFP)
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The US Congress may review whether it should tamp down its concerns over Egypt's human rights record in exchange for getting the North African country to upend arms deals with Russia and instead seek American weapons, a recent congressional report has suggested.

The report highlights how significantly the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected Washington's approach to the region, as the US tries to isolate Moscow on the global stage.

"Any decline in the attractiveness of Russia as a military partner and source of arms could create opportunities for the United States, but closer US security partnerships with some MENA region governments might spur additional attention to longstanding debates over democracy, human rights, and the regional military balance," the report said.

"Congress may weigh the value of seeking an Egyptian pledge to cancel procurement of Russian aircraft in exchange for being able to buy American ones against ongoing concern about Egypt's poor human rights record."

There has been growing discontent in the US Congress over the human rights situation in Egypt, with calls being made to suspend assistance to the country and stop arms deals. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian government has cracked down on civil society groups, independent media, rights activists and political dissidents.

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Sisi has consistently denied this, and has framed the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism.

The country receives about $1.3bn in US military aid each year, the second-highest of any country after Israel.

Last year, the US administration withheld $130m in military assistance to Egypt, citing human rights concerns. 

But the State Department's 2023 budget proposal included a provision disconnecting Egyptian human rights conditions from some military aid to the country.

The Biden administration has stated that while it is concerned with human rights in Egypt, the conflict in Ukraine is creating opportunities for countries to further align with the US.

"This is a critical time, too, in the relationship with a number of countries, particularly countries that may be reconsidering their own relationships and potential dependencies on Russia," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Senator Chris Murphy, a vocal critic of Sisi, during a Senate hearing in April.

"But I completely share your focus on and concern about human rights, including in Egypt. It is, it will remain a central part of our policy even as we work to strengthen what is a - a vital partnership for us."

The battle for the Middle East arms market

In recent years, Egypt has ranked as one of the top four purchasers of Russian weapons in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Some of its deals with Moscow, however, appear to be withering, including a purchase of the Russian Su-35 fighter jet.

In March, US Centcom commander General Frank McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US planned to approve the sale of advanced F-15 jets to Egypt.

The congressional report also noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had potentially squashed a years-long effort by Moscow to expand into the Middle East arms market.

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The report said that Congress could play a role in reviewing additional arms deals with countries in the Middle East, if those countries support US policy towards the Russia-Ukraine war.

"Congress might review proposed security assistance and arms sales to MENA partners in light of partners’ support for US policy toward the Russia-Ukraine war and Russia's potentially diminished attractiveness as a security partner," the report said.

One of the countries in the region most affected by the ongoing invasion of Ukraine is Turkey, a Nato ally that has been playing a mediator role between Kyiv and Moscow.

Ankara has been at odds with Washington over a number of issues, including its procurement of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system, which led to it being kicked out of the joint F-35 fighter jet programme with the US.

However, senior American officials have recently stated new openness to sell Turkey its F-16 fighter jets, as the Nato ally is seeking to modernise its air fleet.

"The United States supports Turkey’s modernisation of its fighter fleet because that is a contribution to Nato security and therefore American security," Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, said, as quoted by the Financial Times.