WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is justifying the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military aid to Egypt, citing the country's progress over the last year in counterterrorism efforts and some improvements in its human rights record.
A State Department official told VOA the United States has worked closely with the Egyptian government over the last year to further strengthen bilateral ties in support of common security and counterterrorism goals.
"The secretary signed the national security waiver that allows for the obligation of an additional $195 million in FY 2017 Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Egypt, as well as the certification that allows for the obligation of $1 billion in FY 2018 FMF for Egypt," the official told VOA on Tuesday.
"We continue to support Egypt in combating terrorism and in encouraging steps toward inclusive economic growth and good governance," the State Department official added.
The announcement follows the administration's decision in July to release another $195 million in military aid for fiscal year 2016 to Cairo, which had been previously withheld over allegations of human rights violations by Egypt's government.
"Recognizing steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific U.S. concerns, and in the spirit of our efforts to further strengthen this partnership, the administration has decided to allow Egypt to use the remaining $195 million in FY 2016 FMF for military procurements," a U.S. official told VOA at the time.
But Washington acknowledges Cairo needs to continue to improve its human rights record.
"We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt," a U.S. official told VOA on Tuesday.
The country has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months by rights groups, who allege Egyptian authorities are targeting political dissidents under the guise of security.
"The Egyptian regime used its fight on terrorism to crack down on peaceful opposition and to shut down the public sphere completely," Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VOA.
And in recent years, authorities in Egypt have arrested dozens of members of both domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations.
"We will continue to make clear the need for progress in addressing them, including fully resolving 2013 NGO convictions and addressing our concerns about the NGO law," the State Department official noted.
Some analysts charge that the Egyptian government has not done much and that the release of aid gives the wrong signal.
"Releasing the aid gives the Egyptian government carte blanche to continue with its crackdown, and perhaps even take it a step further," Amr Kotb, advocacy director at Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle Eastern Policy, told VOA.
Kotb added that the U.S. has the ability to be a force that promotes fundamental freedoms and rights and that it should continue to play that role.
A senior Egyptian official, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to media, said that the release of aid to Egypt is about more than money.
"The aid was just a small portion. The relation between Egypt and U.S. is more than money," the official said, noting the U.S. and Egypt need one another to fight terrorism in the region.
The Egyptian official said his government has been working on adjusting laws that regulate NGOs in the country, and a decision about the matter would be announced soon.
In 2013, Egypt's crackdown on nongovernmental organizations in the country, including several American NGO workers, prompted the Obama administration to withhold military aid to the country.
That year, a Cairo court convicted 43 NGO workers, including several Americans, over allegations of receiving foreign funding and sowing internal unrest in the country.
Nancy Okail, who is currently the executive director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, was one of those indicted.
"Most of the leadership of civil society organizations that we know of and are most established are either being prosecuted, or they are banned from traveling and having their assets frozen," Okail said.
"I was charged with operating an office without license and for receiving funding from foreign government," she told VOA. She added that at the time she was finishing her paperwork to become the Egypt country director of Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernment organization working for democracy around the world.
Imad Ad-Dean Ahmad, from the U.S.-based research group Minaret of Freedom Institute, believes canceling aid might not be as effective as many would like it to be in encouraging improvement in Egypt's record.
"I am not sure to what degree it can be an effective tool in establishing human rights in Egypt. There hasn't been any changes in Egyptian policy toward human rights of its citizens," Ahmad said.
Security or rights?
Egypt has long been viewed by the U.S. as a stabilizing force in the region. After Israel, the country is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid and has received nearly $80 billion in military and economic assistance over the past three decades.
"Egypt was always looked on as a country providing stability and also to try to keep peace between Israel and Egypt," Robert Goldman, professor of international humanitarian law at the American University School of Law, told VOA.
Goldman added that for that reason, the Obama administration was put in a very difficult position to withhold the aid for Egypt in 2013.
But Daniel Benaim, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, believes Washington should not put aside the issue of human rights and democracy as it works with Egypt on the counterterrorism front.
"The U.S. should continue to forcefully raise issues of democracy and human rights because they matter to Egypt's future and should matter to the kinds of sustainable partnerships America should want," Benaim said.
Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.