By Richard Walker
The unsolved, grisly murder of a young Italian researcher by members of Egypt’s security service has brought further focus on a nation run by a military dictatorship that receives $3.65 million a day from Washington. That amounts to $1.3 billion annually. Since 1979, the Egyptian Military has received $51 billion in U.S. aid, with a further $30 billion gifted to the country’s economy. Just before the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush forgave Egypt a $7.1 billion loan, presumably because he was planning to seek their help with his Middle East policies.
Egypt is run by a military dictatorship with a very poor human rights record that angered President Donald Trump, who threatened to withhold $130 million of the annual U.S. taxpayer gift until changes were made to the way the Egyptian system handled its tens of thousands of political prisoners who were denied basic rights. The Biden administration followed Trump’s lead by threatening to hold back $130 million. These are minor sums, and Washington never follows through on its threats to Egypt. The response from the Biden administration drew the ire of rights groups, including Seth Binder of the Advocacy Project in Washington. Like others, he felt that Biden had even failed to match his predecessor’s effort.
“When put in the same position four years ago, the Trump administration was stronger on human rights in Egypt,” he noted
This begs the question: Why are American taxpayers asked to fork out $3.65 million every day to this pariah regime when the money could be spent at home on schools or on other issues? It is a question that goes to the heart of a Washington tendency over decades to support military dictatorships like those in Pakistan. Its military elite used U.S. taypayer-provided aid to line their own pockets and to further the country’s nuclear weapons program. The Egyptian military, very much like Pakistan’s military, is deeply involved in the country’s economy, so aid from Washington is a welcome gift. As with aid to Afghanistan, there is a lack of oversight over how it is spent. Reports have confirmed that the Egyptian army has bought a lot of equipment it subsequently stored, proving it was not bought for defense, but to please someone in the arms industry.
So why has Egypt suddenly popped into focus? The reason is that an Italian judge tried to hold accountable four named Egyptian security officers for the shocking murder in 2016 of 28-year-old Giulio Regenie, a research student compiling data on Egyptian trade unions to complete his studies for a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Evidence has since shown that he was under surveillance before he disappeared. His body was subsequently found, and an autopsy revealed that he had been tortured and mutilated before he died. His nails had been pulled out and his body bore signs of beatings and the use of electric shocks. Egypt has long abandoned any effort to find his killers, but others were able to name them, including the Italian intelligence agencies.
Nearly 3,000 disappearances have occurred in recent years in Egypt, which holds 60,000 political prisoners. The Italian judge who has sought to hold Regenie’s murderers accountable in absentia because Egypt refuses to extradite them, has had to suspend his efforts as the case is being challenged on the basis that trying people in absentia is not in line with European justice. Nevertheless, the issue has sparked debate about Egypt and has led many observers to question why it still retains the support of Washington and what the American taxpayer really gets for the massive daily handout.
The answer to all of this lies with Israel. It has consistently put pressure on Congress and the White House to continue to provide financial and political support to Egypt and its leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Israel has argued that Al-Sisi is a partner in the war against terror and, in particular, against Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Sisi has cemented his hold on Egypt by using constitutional amendments to keep himself in power until at least 2030. He has also exploited legislation to restrict public demonstrations and has denied legal rights to tens of thousands of political prisoners. Al-Sisi wooed Washington at the outset of his rule, promising to protect Christians and other minorities, but many feel it was a false promise because he has continued to treat Christians as second-class citizens, a point made by Stephen McInerney, writing in Foreign Policy in 2019. He made this observation about the regime: “Sisi has done nothing to address pervasive problems such as economic discrimination toward non-Muslims; the presence of a “blasphemy” clause in the penal code that the government wields against alleged critics of Islam; and the authorities’ persistent failure to prevent sectarian attacks on Christians.”
In light of this record, Congress should end the financing of this dictatorship, but it is unlikely the Biden administration will consider such a course of action.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.