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25 Jun, 2014 09:10

Washington rethinks $1bn aid to Egypt amid ‘descent toward despotism’

Washington rethinks $1bn aid to Egypt amid ‘descent toward despotism’

US congressional leaders are considering withholding more than $1 billion in military support to Cairo after Egyptian courts delivered mass death sentences to opposition figures and lengthy jail terms for journalists.

Following a week of harsh court decisions that attracted international scorn, Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the US Senate subcommittee that supervises foreign aid, advised that additional funding should be withheld until Cairo authorities prove their commitment to upholding human rights.

"Withholding military aid to the Egyptian regime has let its leaders know that repressive actions and abuses of human rights and the rule of law are deeply concerning to the American people, and to many in Congress," Leahy said in a statement ruing Cairo's "descent toward despotism."

Ever since it agreed to a peace treaty with Israel back in 1979, Cairo has been the beneficiary of around $1.3 billion annually in military aid, in addition to $200 million in economic and democracy-building support.

In the aftermath of the 2011 public protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, followed one year later by his successor, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, Washington turned off the cash pipeline.

The White House reversed gears in April, however, agreeing to release half of the $1.3 billion, in aid, as well as deliver 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt’s military.

A US AH-64 Apache helicopter fires rockets (AFP Photo / Jung Yeon-Je)

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Egypt to meet with its new leader, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The trip came after Washington agreed to release the remaining second half of the promised funds.

Kerry said the United States was "very interested in working closely" with the new leadership "in order to make this transition as rapidly and smoothly as possible."

However, amid the purported human rights abuses in Egypt, the Obama administration is attracting fierce opposition over the allocation of any funds to Cairo.

US Representative Adam Schiff introduced an amendment to an annual appropriations bill on Tuesday that would decrease Egypt's total aid package by about 30 percent, while using some of the funds to support educational and democratic institutions.

Adam B. Schiff (Mark Wilson / Getty Images / AFP)

"As long as we are giving Egyptians a blank check, we can expect our democratic ideals to be given no more than lip service," Schiff told Reuters.

The House Appropriations committee voted 35-11 to defeat Schiff's amendment, but the California congressman vowed to push the bill through Congress in its next reading.

An Egyptian court at the weekend declared death sentences against 183 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in a mass trial related to street protests in which one police officer was killed. Human rights groups said the prosecution provided scant incriminating evidence against the accused.

Since Morsi was ousted by Sisi in July 2013, a nationwide crackdown on his supporters has left around 1,500 people dead in violent street clashes and at least 15,000 in prison.

On Monday, a judge sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy prison terms after finding them guilty on charges that included helping the Muslim Brotherhood by publishing ‘lies’ to give the impression the country was facing civil war.

The court sentenced Mohammed Fahmy, Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief of Al Jazeera, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed to seven years for supporting a "terrorist organization." Mohamed also received an extra three years in prison on separate charges.

The newly-elected Egyptian president said on Tuesday said he would not interfere with the verdicts, despite the international outcry.