By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration has allowed much of U.S. foreign military aid to Egypt to go ahead, saying the country was vital for U.S. national security interests despite what critics have said about widespread human rights abuses.
Washington has only withheld $85 million of the aid, which under U.S. law was contingent on Egypt making "clear and consistent progress" in releasing political prisoners, which the United States said Cairo did not fulfill.
That amount withheld is a fraction of the $1.3 billion a year allocated for Egypt.
The United States has long provided Egypt with large amounts of military and other aid, ever since the Arab world's most populous nation signed a peace deal with neighboring Israel in 1979. Cairo has remained a close regional ally of Washington.
The law allows a further $235 million to be withheld as that portion is also conditioned on Egypt meeting democracy and human rights requirements but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his right to waive these conditions, U.S. officials said.
"Egypt's voice is a crucial one, on so many issues across the region that we're trying to work together in the spirit of regional peace and security," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the decision.
The decision did not diminish U.S. commitment to advancing human rights in Egypt, said other U.S. officials, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. Washington has held "tough conversations" with the Egyptians on its human rights track record, the officials said.
But rights groups who have long accused Egypt of widespread abuses under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, including torture and enforced disappearances, said the U.S. decision sends the wrong message.
"The administration is effectively telling Sisi’s government that it saw improvement in the human rights situation over the past year, when in fact things have degenerated significantly," a consortium of 16 groups that include Freedom House and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) said in a statement.
"This undermines any efforts by the administration to address human rights concerns in Egypt and will only further embolden al-Sisi, risking further destabilizing the country."
Sisi denies there are political prisoners in Egypt. He says stability and security are paramount and authorities are promoting rights by trying to provide basic needs such as jobs and housing.
Political analysts said Western powers are reluctant to take serious action against a strategic ally that has served as a mediator in long-standing issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, and which controls the Suez Canal, one of the world's most valuable shipping lanes.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Grant McCool)