U.S. report finds Egypt's human rights abuses increasing

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) talks to his Minister of Industry and Trade Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (L) during the closing session of an African summit meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on June 10, 2015. Senior African officials were negotiating a trade deal in Egypt to create a common market across half the continent, with the aim of raising Africa's share of global trade -- currently at about two percent. The deal between the East African Community, Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) would create a 26-country market with a population of 625 million and gross domestic product worth more than $1 trillion (900 billion euros). AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt is failing to protect free speech and its minorities, investigate abuses by its forces or grant U.S. monitors access to the conflict-ridden Sinai Peninsula, according to a damning Trump administration report obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.S. grievances, detailed in a State Department memorandum, stand in stark contrast to the warm, harmonious relationship President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have projected publicly since Trump took office. Neither leader mentioned the report or Washington's concerns as they opened a meeting Wednesday in New York on the sidelines of a United Nations gathering.

"We appreciate everything you've done," Trump told el-Sissi. "And I know you've appreciated everything we've done."

Yet in the report, submitted to Congress in August but never released publicly, the United States concluded that the climate for human rights in Egypt "continues to "deteriorate." The report was legally required for the Trump administration to continue giving certain aid to Cairo despite its failure to meet several conditions on good governance.

"There is a continuing problem with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances," the memo says. "There are reports of extrajudicial killings. There are numerous allegations of torture and deaths in detention."

Last month, the Trump administration cut nearly $100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt, a key counterterrorism partner that has repeatedly run afoul of the U.S. over its human rights record. But the administration said Egypt would still receive almost $200 million more in military financing, on a delayed basis, if it makes improvements, including easing tight restrictions on civic groups.

"We'll certainly consider it," Trump said alongside el-Sissi when a reporter asked whether he will restore military aid to Egypt.

Although the U.S. determined last month it couldn't certify that Egypt was meeting its conditions to receive the aid, the law allows Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to waive those conditions if he determines it's in U.S. national security interests to provide the funds anyway. But the law requires a detailed "memorandum of justification" outlining how Egypt is falling short.

Tillerson sent the memo to U.S. lawmakers on Aug. 22, the same day the funding decision was announced. But the State Department has declined to make the memo public, despite requests from the media and human rights groups. The memo is considered embarrassing to el-Sissi, who has denounced previous human rights critiques as baseless.

El-Sissi did not directly address global criticism of his country's rights record in his speech to the U.N. this week. But the Egyptian leader said his country was working to empower its people economically despite being "encircled by the most dangerous crises in the world."

Another major U.S. concern is the lack of access Egypt has granted American officials in northern Sinai, where el-Sissi is grappling with an insurgency by Islamic militants. Egyptian authorities have barred journalists and most others from traveling there, leaving news outlets to rely entirely on statements by the police or the military spokesman.

The report said Egypt has only allowed U.S. officials to visit certain facilities used by an international observer force, and development projects near the Suez Canal. Stephen McInerney, who runs the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said that raises questions about whether the U.S. can legally keep providing military aid and equipment. Under the terms of the aid, the U.S. must be able to monitor how money and weapons transferred to foreign governments are used.

"The U.S. administration deserves credit for acknowledging in this report the brutal reality of escalating human rights abuses by the Egyptian state," McInerney said.

In the report, the U.S. said Cairo is failing to meet five criteria laid out in the annual spending bill covering foreign aid. The memo cited specific incidents, including the arrest of more than 30 members of opposition parties since May. In that same period, the report said, the Egyptians have blocked more than 100 online media outlets, frozen assets of activists and failed to provide due process for political detainees.

"Arrests often occur without warrants or judicial orders," the report said. "Conditions in prisons and detention centers are harsh due to overcrowding, physical abuse, inadequate medical care, and poor ventilation."

The memo also criticizes Cairo for granting "impunity" to its police and security forces despite reports of "arbitrary killings" of those being arrested or in custody. And it faults el-Sissi for signing a law in May that's viewed as a crackdown on non-governmental groups, including those that advocate for better rights in Egypt.

The State Department didn't say why it has declined to make the report public. After the AP obtained a copy, a State Department official said the U.S. had determined increased security cooperation with Cairo was important to U.S. national security despite "serious concerns regarding human rights and governance in Egypt." The official wasn't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel, receiving about $1.3 billion annually. Trump has generally avoided direct criticism of el-Sissi over his country's human rights record.