Democratic lawmakers on a Senate Foreign Relations Committee panel on Tuesday scrutinized the U.S.’ plans for future arms sales to countries in the Middle East that have a record of human rights violations, urging officials from the State Department and Pentagon to assess the strategic necessity of such deals.

“There is always enormous pressure both from our partners in [the Middle East] and the defense-industrial complex in Washington to do more without any corresponding pressure to examine whether these sales are actually advancing our interests or actually making Americans safer,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, said during the hearing.

An Egyptian AH-64 Apache heliocopter flies over simulated hostile territory to penetrate defenses during an exercise at Talet El Kief, Egypt, Sept. 18, 2018 during Exercise Bright Star 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Warren)

Murphy, in particular, pressed the two witnesses from the State Department and Pentagon on the Biden administration’s security partnership plans with Egypt, noting the U.S. provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid “amid a dizzying crackdown on political dissent.”

“Not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons why we should align ourselves, from a security perspective, with Egypt, but isn’t there a risk at some point that if there’s no consequence for a country like Egypt continuing this crackdown on political dissent and speech that it compromises our ability to lead the world when it comes to the advancement of democracy and human rights,” Murphy said, adding that continuing the security relationship without changes effectively endorses the Egyptian government’s behavior.

Since last May, the U.S. has approved a $2.3 billion sale with Egypt for 43 refurbished AH-64E Apache helicopters, as well as a $104 million deal for a Northrop Grumman [NOC] LAIRCM system and a $197 million deal for 168 Raytheon Technologies [RTX]-built RAM Block 2 tactical missiles (Defense Daily, May 7 2020). 

“We have deep concerns regarding human rights violations in Egypt and we will continue to raise these concerns with Egyptian officials at the senior-most levels as we work with Egypt to improve their ability to advance shared security interests, including counter-terrorism and border and maritime security,” Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security, told the subcommittee.  

Dana Stroul, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said Biden values the relationship with Egypt and the country remains an important security partner, noting its plans to upgrade its Apache helicopter fleet “by using blended financing not just U.S. security assistance but also Egyptian national funds.”

“[President Biden] discussed in his phone call with [Egyptian] President [Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi in May the U.S.’ intent for a constructive dialogue on human rights, but we also believe and support that Egypt has legitimate security concerns and believe that security assistance to Egypt is a critical tool in supporting those needs,” Stroul said. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the administration should continue to assess the strategic necessity of each arms sale along with ensuring the partner country’s human rights record aligns with U.S. interests, asking the witnesses to provide information on reports conducted to assess potential violations.

“We do need to step back and reevaluate lots of these issues. You’d both agree, I believe, that it’s not in our security interest when a recipient of U.S. weapons or other forms of security assistance uses them as a tool of repression or to crack down on human rights,” Van Hollen said. 

Resnick noted the recent example when the Biden administration moved to suspend two munitions sales with Saudi Arabia approved during the Trump administration.

“Those sales remain suspended under a policy of ending U.S. support to offensive operations of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen,” Resnick said. “Our risk assessment told us that those munitions could be used, more likely than not, to result in civilian harm, and so that is why we suspended those two munitions sales.”

During his first week in office, Biden directed the State Department to pause and review several ongoing weapons sales that were approved during the Trump presidency, including the sale of Raytheon-built Paveway bombs to Riyadh and a massive $23 billion arms deal with the United Arab Emirates (Defense Daily, Jan. 27). 

The administration in April ultimately decided to move ahead with the UAE deal, which includes, $10 billion for 50 F-35A strike fighters, $2.9 billion for 18 MQ-9B Reaper drones and $10 billion for a range of munitions, while it still faces a pending legal challenge from the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) that aims to block the agreement (Defense Daily, April 14).