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Pompeo justifies sending Egypt money in memo detailing human rights abuses

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote to Congress to explain why he was releasing $195 million in U.S. military aid for Egypt that the Trump administration had earlier withheld over human rights concerns.

But far from assuring lawmakers that Egypt is making progress on human rights, the “memorandum of justification” laying out the decision amounts to a searing indictment of how Egypt’s government treats its citizens — describing extrajudicial killings, unfair trials, censorship and a generally repressive atmosphere.

At one point, the Aug. 21 memo bluntly states: “The overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate.”

The document, obtained this week by POLITICO, offers insight into one of two recent cases in which Pompeo has decided that U.S. national security interests should override human rights concerns when it comes to offering military support to foreign allies.

Earlier this month, Pompeo certified to Congress that the Saudi-led coalition battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is doing enough to protect civilians, clearing the way for the U.S. to keep giving the Saudis logistical support.


That decision came despite a U.N. report arguing the Saudis could be committing war crimes in Yemen and amid growing bipartisan anger in Congress over Saudi actions in the country. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Pompeo’s decision on Yemen may have been linked to concerns that abandoning the Saudis could hurt U.S. arms sales — a suggestion Pompeo has dismissed.

Egypt has long been a major ally of the United States, even after post-Arab Spring political tumult led to a military-backed government led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a retired field marshal. The U.S. gives Egypt roughly $1.3 billion a year in military aid, second only to Israel.

The Trump administration is hardly the first to look the other way on human rights when it believes U.S. strategic interests are at stake. With rare, often-temporary exceptions, both Republican and Democratic U.S. presidential administrations have for decades overlooked human rights abuses in Egypt in favor of keeping the money flowing — and keeping Egypt on America’s side.

So President Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, shocked the international community last year when he decided to take advantage of a legal provision and hold back $195 million of the Egyptian aid.

Tillerson was reportedly rankled that el-Sisi had imposed a law severely restricting civil society groups and that Egypt wasn’t doing more to distance itself from North Korea. Tillerson also was thought to be unhappy with Egypt’s legal prosecution of dozens of people working for non-governmental organizations promoting democracy and other causes. The defendants included 17 Americans, most of whom were tried in absentia.

Tillerson’s decision was especially surprising because Trump has fawned over el-Sisi, calling him a “fantastic guy.” Tillerson himself had previously downplayed the importance of promoting American values overseas. But the decision to withhold the money may have had some impact: a new trial has been ordered for the NGO workers, for instance.

Tillerson refused to issue a certification required under U.S. law to allow that $195 million to flow, and in his recent memo to Congress, Pompeo says he also cannot issue a certification.


What Pompeo instead did was take advantage of a provision in the law letting him waive the needed certification on U.S. national security grounds. (Tillerson also issued the waiver, according to media reports at the time, but decided to withhold the money anyway.)

Some observers fear Pompeo has moved too fast to unfreeze the money and that Egypt will backslide even on areas where it seemed to be making progress, including its legal pursuit of the NGO staffers.

“The message that Egypt takes away is that they don’t have to take these issues seriously,” said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, which seeks to empower democratic activists in the region. “The United States won’t hold it accountable for human rights abuses, and ultimately the U.S. will do whatever it takes to get Egypt the money because it sees Egypt as central to its security interests.”

Pompeo’s memo, which is marked as unclassified, lays out some of those interests.

It notes that Egypt maintains control over the Suez Canal, a critical transit point. Egypt also “provides the U.S. military with overflight approvals, including in support of counter-[terrorism] operations,” the memo states. The memo also points to Egypt’s honoring of its peace deal with Israel, another key U.S. ally.

But most of the four-page memo is devoted to detailing Egypt’s myriad human rights miseries.

“Arrests often occur without warrants or judicial orders,” one passage states. “Conditions in prisons and detention centers are harsh due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and poor ventilation. Egyptian courts have continued to issue mass death sentences in proceedings that failed to meet Egypt’s international human rights obligations.”

In a statement on the memo, the State Department told POLITICO that the U.S. has “serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt, and we will continue to raise these concerns with Egyptian officials, including at the senior-most levels of the Egyptian government.”

The spokesman added, however, that “strengthened security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security.”


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