WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has authorized the release of $1.2 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt, despite human rights concerns that have held up previous funding.
The State Department said Friday it is notifying Congress that Pompeo has signed national security waivers allowing the money known as foreign military financing, or FMF, to be spent. Congress has 15 days to weigh in on the waivers, which were signed on Aug. 21 but not previously made public. It was not immediately clear why there was a delay in the notification. The money includes $1 billion for the current 2018 budget year and $195 million appropriated for 2017 that would have had to have been returned to the Treasury had it not been spent by Sept. 30.
In July, Pompeo had lifted a hold on another $195 million in FMF that Congress had approved for budget year 2016 but which former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had frozen due to the continuing human rights issues.
The department said Friday the Trump administration still had "serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt" and would continue to raise those concerns with senior Egyptian officials.
"At the same time," it said, "strengthened security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security. Secretary Pompeo determined that continuing with the obligation and expenditure of these FMF funds is important to strengthening our security cooperation with Egypt."
Independent monitoring groups have documented continued human rights abuses in Egypt over the past year and one such organization, Human Rights First, condemned Friday's announcement.
"Sending more military aid is just doubling down on July's terrible decision," it said. "This is a clear signal that the Trump Administration is more than okay with President Sisi's targeting of human rights defenders. Green lights don't come much bigger than this."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has described the situation in Egypt as the "worst human rights crisis in the country in decades." Egyptian police, the group said, systematically use "torture, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances to silence political dissent," according to a recent assessment.
Amnesty International reported an escalation in Egypt's crackdown on civil society and pointed to routine "grossly unfair" trials of government critics, peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights defenders.
The suspension of the U.S. military aid to Egypt in August 2017 came as a surprise as the two allies had forged increasingly close ties under President Donald Trump.
In announcing the freeze, Tillerson said he wasn't able to certify that Egypt had met the human rights criteria set by Congress in order to receive the American assistance.
Egypt responded angrily and called that decision a "misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades."
Egypt long has been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, receiving nearly $80 billion in military and economic assistance over the past 30 years.