With remarkably little comment or fanfare, the U.S. government reportedly denied $95.7 million in aid to Egypt on Tuesday afternoon, with another $195 million put on hold.
Reuters could obtain no official comment from the White House or State Department on Tuesday but said “sources familiar with the matter” expressed dismay that a law regulating non-governmental organizations (NGOs) took effect in May, despite assurances from Egyptian officials that it would be scuttled by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Reuters reported that the decision was a response to concern with civil liberties and human rights in Egypt, particularly the NGO law.
A follow-up report from Reuters clarified that much of the aid withheld and delayed was intended for the Egyptian military.
Human Rights Watch (itself an NGO) denounced the law as “repressive” in a June statement co-signed by seven other non-governmental organizations.
“This new law represents a huge step backward for freedom of association in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have squeezed shut whatever limited space remained for nongovernmental groups in Egypt and driven the human rights community underground,” said HRW’s Deputy Middle East Director, Joe Stork.
In essence, opponents accused the Egyptian government of trying to regulate NGOs critical of the Sisi administration out of existence by prohibiting them from engaging in such vaguely-defined activities as harming “national security, public order, public morality, or public health.”
The government created a new agency to oversee the activities of NGOs, with powers including the ability to block other Egyptian agencies from working with NGOs and control of their fundraising activities. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, the law went so far as criminalizing the relocation of NGO offices without prior government approval.
In addition to the $95.7 million “reprogrammed” away from Cairo, the Trump administration decided not to issue a national-security waiver that would have released 15 percent of funds for Egypt withheld because Cairo has not made sufficient progress on a number of human-rights issues. This sum of $195 million could still be made available if Egypt demonstrates satisfactory improvements.
The Sisi government frequently complains about “foreign interference” and accuses NGOs of stirring up trouble on behalf of foreign powers, by which it usually means Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood, which was deposed from control of Egypt in the shakeup that brought Sisi to power. Foreign interference is also a major element of the dispute Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and several other Sunni Arab nations have with Qatar and the influential news network it hosts, Al-Jazeera.