Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in Congressional budget hearings this week that "there are disturbing arrests, there are disturbing sentences," but defended the administration's stance by pointing to Egypt's strategic importance to the U.S., the competition among global players for influence in Cairo and the difficult security environment there.
"We've got a huge interest in making sure that Egypt doesn't go down into a more difficult status than it is," said Kerry, who repeatedly used the adjective "complex" to describe the situation. "There is a major challenge of extremism, bombs that have been going off in Cairo, bombs that have gone off in Sharm el-Sheikh, different challenges."
The administration's call to formally omit human rights as a condition "is disappointing," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. "This is the worst period for human rights abuses, as well as the closure of political space, in Egypt's modern history."
The debate over Egypt's aid reflects a long-standing tension between U.S. security interests in stable, friendly countries and the desire to promote core American values such as freedom of speech and of worship. That friction is particularly acute in the Middle East, where the Obama administration has shifted from idealism to realpolitik since the so-called Arab Spring has devolved into protracted, bloody conflict across the region.
In 2013, the administration suspended military aid to Egypt to push the new military regime to improve its democratic track record. That move came after months of internal administration debate over whether to label the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi as a coup. This year, the administration is asking Congress to remove all human rights restrictions that apply to the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Cairo.
That aid has been a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1978 Camp David peace negotiations in which Egypt recognized Israel. Beyond establishing a cold peace with Egypt for its close ally, the U.S. also negotiated priority access for its own military vessels through the Suez Canal, as well as overflight rights for military planes.
Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the State Department, said the agency will "continue to evaluate Egypt's progress with regards to human rights and democracy, and we continue to have frank discussions with the Egyptian government about our concerns, which are not at odds with Egypt's legitimate concerns over the threat of terrorism."
Kerry acknowledged a "deterioration" in Egyptian freedoms in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday. A day earlier he told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the security challenge faced by leaders in Cairo "doesn't excuse these things," adding, "I'm not suggesting that. But we have to try to work and thread a needle carefully that can balance the various interests that exist."
Some lawmakers agreed with him, with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham saying "the nightmare of all nightmares is if Egypt fails, and it is complicated."
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who authored legislation that places human rights conditions on military aid, worried that Egypt's leaders were taking "some of the same steps that created their problems in the past."
Leahy was one of many lawmakers that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited this month on a trip to Washington.
"We believe that the relationship between the United States and Egypt is a resource of importance," Shoukry said in remarks with Kerry at the State Department. "We hope that the United States will continue to cooperate effectively and to support Egypt during this time."
Over three days of testimony about the State Department budget, lawmakers pointed to the arrests of journalists, members of civil society groups and mass convictions, including the sentencing of 4-year-old Mansour Qorany Sharara for murders that took place when the boy was 16 months old.
The toddler was just one of 115 people sentenced by a military court for killing three people and damaging property during a January 2014 protest. When Egyptian military authorities discovered Mansour's age, they arrested and detained the boy's father for four months.
This week, after international outcry, they reversed the sentence, but the incident highlights how broken the system is, criminal justice researcher Karim Ennarah told CNN. "I would go as far as saying it is disintegrating -- the justice system," Ennarah said. "It's on the verge of complete dysfunctionality."
Speaking to the senators on the Appropriations committee on Wednesday, Kerry offered two reasons that may shine some light on the administration's shift on Egypt over the past few years. The first had to do with regional influence. Kerry pointed out that while the U.S. allotted $1.3 billion in military aid and $150 million in economic aid for Cairo every year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have channeled over $20 billion into Egypt in the last few years.
"Let me ask you who has leverage, who are they going to listen to, where do they think their help is coming from," Kerry said. "We need to think about this."
The second reason had to do with the viral spread of violence and extremism in a borderless world, and the way in which radical groups in Syria can mobilize disaffected young people in places like San Bernardino, California. That environment argues for doing everything possible to address failed and failing states and for promoting stability, Kerry said. "Over there is not 'over there' anymore," he said. "Over there is here now, always, and people need to focus on that reality."
The administration's request to waive human rights conditions gives Egypt no incentive to improve that situation, some analysts say, and could send a message of impunity to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former armed forces chief and graduate of the U.S. Army War College. They also point to the irony that human rights abuses can create the very radicalization Egyptian authorities are seeking to suppress.
"There are concerns that those human rights abuses might be leading to radicalization and terrorism," said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's hard to understand at this time why you would want to remove that kind of language from the legislation," Dunne said of the administration's request to Congress.
Kerry himself publicly and repeatedly delivered warnings about the links between human rights abuses and extremism during an August 2015 visit to Cairo. Quoting President Barack Obama, he said: "When people are oppressed and human rights are denied -- when dissent is silenced -- it feeds violent extremism."