A screengrab from a live stream of a bipartisan panel of experts on Egypt-U.S. relations, April 26, 2017.
A screengrab from a live stream of a bipartisan panel of experts on Egypt-U.S. relations, April 26, 2017.

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan panel of experts on Egypt-U.S. relations is urging Congress to rethink its annual $1.5 billion aid package to Cairo as the country fails to improve its human rights record.

The experts argued Egypt, under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is a military-run state, with no respect for human rights and rampant with government-sponsored anti-Americanism.

The scholars made their comments at a recent hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, began her remarks by mentioning recently leaked footage that appears to show Egyptian soldiers executing terror suspects in the Sinai Peninsula.

Rising repression

"Egypt does face a serious threat from terrorism, but the unprecedented human rights abuses and political repression practiced by the government since 2013 is fanning the flames rather than putting them out," Dunne said. "And the U.S., at this point, does not have a way to ensure that our assistance is not making the problem worse instead of better."

She commended President Donald Trump's apparent reluctance to give Cairo whatever it wants as a positive sign. During President Sissi's recent visit to the U.S., he did not get a promise from the administration to keep aid coming without questioning conditions in the country, Dunne added.

Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for human rights in Former President Barack Obama's administration, focused his testimony on the persistent crackdown and repression in Egypt.

"Over the last two or three years, the primary priority of the Egyptian military and General Sissi has not been to fight terrorism or improve governance," Malinowski said. "It has been to make sure that what happened in 2011 -- the Tahrir Square uprising -- can never ever happen again in Egypt, and that the power of the military over the country’s politics and economics is not challenged.”

Malinowski said as a result, the military has concentrated on persecuting political opponents, peaceful protesters, and independent, nongovernmental organizations -- the very people in Egypt who despise jihadis.

He criticized Egypt for its attacks on U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations and urged Trump to adopt an "America first” human rights policy. Such a policy would call for the release of Egyptian-American political prisoners, such as recently freed aid worker Ayah Hijazi, Malinowski said.

President Donald Trump meets with Aya Hijazi, an E
President Donald Trump meets with Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, in the Oval office of the White House in Washington, April 21, 2017.

Hijazi and four other humanitarian workers were released after Trump spoke with Sissi on Hijazi's behalf

Creating more jihadis

Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, urged Congress to link up to 25 percent of the annual $1.3 billion military assistance package to progress on human rights. Current law only links 15 percent of aid to the issue.

Abrams said many of the big-ticket items Egypt is buying with the U.S. aid, such as fighter jets, are useless for battling terrorist threats such as the Islamic State. He also accused Egypt of creating more jihadis through its operations in the Sinai Peninsula.

"If you take 60,000 political prisoners, people who have not committed acts of violence, beat them up, toss them into prisons, keep them in for years, incarcerate them with real jihadis; what comes out at the end of that process is more jihadis," Abrams said.

He also argued that Egypt has lost the regional influence it had when the United States urged it to make peace with Israel in the late 1970s.

The experts urged Congress to retain the Obama administration's plan to end the cash flow to Egypt.

Senators of both parties in the committee seemed to agree with much of the testimony offered by the panel.

At the end of the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee chairman, said, "We need to reshape the relationship in a way that's sustainable. What I see is disheartening, and as to the taxpayer dollars we have, I think we're obligated to spend them wisely, consistent with our values."

The Trump administration has proposed replacing military assistance grants with loans for all countries except Israel. And the State Department is seeking a 42 percent cut in economic aid to Egypt, from $143 million to $75 million, according to draft budget documents obtained by Foreign Policy magazine.

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