The United States is looking for Egypt to address concerns over freedoms or risk threatening the “ability and willingness of the US to engage”, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.
The US’s top diplomat visited Cairo earlier this week and met with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who gave Kerry a “very strong sense of his commitment” to reevaluate human rights legislation and the judicial process. Kerry pledged American support for Egypt’s economy and security as part of maintaining the “longstanding” and “strategic” relationship centred on the US brokered peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The day after their Sunday meeting, three Al-Jazeera English journalists were sentenced to seven years each, with one receiving an additional three years on a separate charge.
Kerry condemned the verdict, describing it as “chilling” and “draconian” during a press conference in Iraq.
Speaking in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday Kerry said: “Whether it’s the Al-Jazeera journalists or whether it’s activists who’ve been imprisoned or others who are demonstrators who were simply caught up… if that doesn’t begin to change, it’s going to have a profound impact on the ability and willingness of the United States to engage”. He rejected the idea put forward by Egypt’s foreign ministry that criticism of the verdict is “interference from outside”, but rather he called for the implementation of “a universal standard that most countries attempt to apply to journalists or to their own citizens”.
Kerry’s concerns were reflected by the US’s Charge D’Affaires Marc Sievers in his Independence Day address at the embassy in Cairo, also on Tuesday. He stressed the importance of maintaining the relationship and said: “At the same time, we also make clear our hope that Egypt’s new government will address the international community’s concerns about limitations on universal rights”. He went on to say that this encompasses freedoms of assembly, expression, political participation and he highlighted the importance of a free press as a “cornerstone of a democratic society”.
Questions have been asked in the US as to why the Egyptian military should receive the anticipated $1.3bn of military aid. A bill presented in the Senate last week proposed a $300m reduction in military aid to Egypt as well as stipulations that the remaining amount would be tied to assurances of democratic progress and human rights.
Kerry’s arrival on Sunday was coupled with the announcement that $572m of military aid had been released by Congress–the first instalment since the delivery of aid was frozen in October last year, pending democratic progress in Egypt.
In his BBC interview, Kerry said that aid to Egypt had been reduced, adding: “We are not providing aid directly to the government”. He explained that the aid is going directly to the military “because there’s a military-to-military relationship which is critical to security in the Sinai, to the truce with Hamas in Gaza, to counterterrorism”.
“We’ve had a longstanding relationship,” continued the Secretary, “and the military, frankly, played a very key role in helping to bring about the elections and the transition on two occasions.”