WASHINGTON — A group of US senators is urging the Biden administration to withhold a fraction of Egypt’s annual military assistance over human rights concerns

“Egypt’s human rights record has continued to deteriorate, despite the Egyptian government’s claims to the contrary,” read a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent Friday led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and 10 other liberal senators, among them Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

At roughly $1.3 billion, Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US foreign military financing after Israel. For fiscal year 2022, Congress has conditioned $320 million of that assistance on the North African country meeting certain human rights benchmarks. 

Of that funding, $235 million is tied to Egypt taking “sustained and effective steps” on issues including the rule of law, women’s rights and protecting fundamental freedoms. The remaining $85 million is tied to the Egyptian government making “clear and consistent progress” in releasing political prisoners, providing detainees with due process of law and preventing the intimidation and harassment of American citizens.

Earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pardoned human rights researcher Patrick Zaki a day after he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news. Also pardoned was prominent human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, who was handed a four-year prison sentence in late 2021. 

The Egyptian government denies there are political prisoners and says many of the protesters, journalists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood languishing in Egypt’s jails constitute a national security threat.

For two years in a row, the Biden administration chose to withhold some but not all of Egypt’s conditioned military aid, disappointing many Democratic lawmakers and rights groups who argued that blocking the full amount of assistance could incentivize Sisi to change course. The administration last year cited Egypt’s release of some 500 political prisoners and Sisi’s launch of a national dialogue with opposition groups. 

The release of the letter coincided with a visit by top commander of US military forces in the Middle East to Cairo for meetings with top Egyptian generals.

US Army Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla met with Egyptian Army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Osama Askar and toured the Rafah border crossing in northern Sinai ahead of this year's biennial Bright Star multinational exercise, to be held in Egypt in August.

This year's Bright Star exercise will be "the largest in many years," CENTCOM said in a press release.

The administration faces an end-of-September deadline to decide how to allocate Egypt's aid, although a decision could come as soon as next month. 

US officials say they’ve repeatedly raised human rights concerns with Egyptian officials both publicly and privately. They describe Egypt as an important strategic partner in the Middle East and point to its role in mediating conflicts between Israel and Palestinian militants. 

The Murphy-led letter references the shared security concerns underpinning the two countries’ military relationship, but said the United States could “continue to support these objectives while enforcing the law to withhold $320 million in military aid to Egypt due to a lack of necessary progress on human rights.”

“As the administration’s decision to withhold a portion of Egypt’s $1.3 billion appropriation for each of the last two years demonstrates, the bilateral security relationship can be effectively sustained at a reduced level of assistance while upholding our values,” the senators wrote.

Also Friday, a group of more than 20 rights groups wrote to Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to urge the administration to withhold the full amount of conditioned aid. 

The letter, signed by groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said Cairo’s actions in recent months “demonstrate that it has not halted its repression campaign or delivered on commitments to meaningfully improve the human rights situation.” 

The rights groups noted that Egyptian authorities touted the release of 1,645 political prisoners while detaining some 4,968 others in the same period. Thousands more have had their pretrial detentions renewed, they said.