Asking Tough Questions on US Military Aid to Egypt

March 26, 2012

egyptian protester run tear gas
A masked Egyptian protester runs after picking up a tear gas canister fired by riot police during clashes near the interior ministry in Cairo on February 4, 2012. (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

When the news finally came, it was through the back door.  Last week, US Senator Patrick Leahy posted a public statement expressing “disappointment” with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to waive new Congressional human rights requirements on US aid to Egypt.

In Senator Leahy’s words:

The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law …  They should end trials of civilians in military courts and fully repeal the Emergency Law, and our policy should not equivocate on these key reforms.

Amnesty International is disappointed by Secretary Clinton’s reported decision as well.  Rather than waiving human rights requirements and potentially handing over $1.3 billion in US military aid, we want the US government to review disbursements of military aid to Egypt on a case-by-case basis.  The US government needs to make sure that the weapons it funds, transfers, or sells to Egypt’s government will not be used to commit human rights violations.

egyptian protesters point to made in usa tear gas canister
Egyptian protesters point to the "Made in USA" tag on a tear gas canister during clashes with riot police at Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on November 20, 2011 (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In fact, the US government should be using this framework for every country that receives US arms or military aid — from Egypt to Bahrain and beyond.

The specific military aid in question comes from the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program (FMF).  Under FMF, the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt has been used by the Egyptian government for a wide range of military purchases. While U.S. government transparency around such purchases has been lacking, a 2006 GAO report demonstrates that these purchases have included aircraft, ships, vehicles, missiles, weapons, and ammunition.

It is worth pointing out that we take no position on the use of U.S. military aid to fund Egyptian arms purchases that are primarily for national defense purposes and do not demonstrate a serious risk of being used to violate human rights.  We oppose the funding, sale, or transfer of arms internationally where there is a substantial risk that the specific arms in question will be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations.

When it comes to human rights violations and military aid, different countries require different levels of concern. In Syria, for example, the government’s crimes against humanity demand a global arms embargo on the country. In Egypt, government security forces have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use small arms, light weapons, ammunition, armored personal vehicles, and internal security equipment (tear gas, rubber and plastic bullets, etc) in acts of excessive force that have resulted in the deaths of many Egyptians. Such acts may have been aided by the use of helicopter-based aerial surveillance during Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

As stated in Amnesty International USA’s March 14 letter to Secretary Clinton:

“Egyptian military and security forces have killed more than 100 protesters in the past five months. These protesters were, for the most part, peacefully demonstrating and chanting. In the particularly gruesome Maspero incident, Egyptian security forces used military vehicles to literally run over Coptic Christian protestors.”

“Amnesty International has repeatedly called for reform of the security forces and an end to the impunity that they enjoy in dealing with protests. Yet, one year later, no clear instructions seem to have been given to the security forces, including military personnel, to uphold the right to peaceful assembly and to police demonstrations in line with international standards.”

What does this mean?

We now have to roll up our sleeves and remind the US government that this is just the beginning of a conversation – not the end.  Secretary Clinton may have waived the human rights requirements on US military aid to Egypt, but now it is time to take out the magnifying glass and look at how those dollars are going to be spent.  Where there is a serious risk of that money being used to commit more human rights violations, it will be up to all of us to say no.