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U.S. and Egypt meet for strategic talks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Biden administration often says it's putting human rights and democracy at the center of its foreign policy. And its dealings with Egypt put that notion to the test. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with top officials from Egypt, a country that receives over a billion dollars in U.S. aid every year despite its poor human rights record. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Dozens of U.S. and Egyptian officials sat in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room as Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally opened two days of wide-ranging talks.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: One reason the relationship is strong is because we're not merely maintaining it but consistently expanding the areas where we cooperate.

KELEMEN: He talked about climate change and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Blinken also praised Egypt for helping to resolve the war in the Gaza Strip in May. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called his country's partnership with the U.S., quote, "indispensable."

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SAMEH SHOUKRY: Indeed, the enduring relationship between our two countries stands as the cornerstone of stability in a troubled region.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken ignored a question about Egypt's role in Sudan. There have been reports that Egypt gave a green light to a military coup that the U.S. is now trying to roll back. On human rights, Blinken welcomed Egypt's launch in September of a strategy to improve human rights. A bipartisan group of U.S. experts, led by Amy Hawthorne, called it a cosmetic strategy that's unlikely to improve the country's record.

AMY HAWTHORNE: The Egypt Working Group, in its letter to Blinken, made very clear do not praise Sisi for this human rights strategy - or really for anything else - because it's not credible.

KELEMEN: Hawthorne, who's with the Project on Middle East Democracy, says Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rolled out that strategy to try to get the U.S. and Europe to stop bugging Egypt about human rights. She's disappointed with the Biden administration's response.

HAWTHORNE: Biden wants cooperative and strong relations with Sisi more than he really wants to press him on human rights. And that's very regrettable because the human rights situation is atrocious, abysmal. It's a stain on the United States' record. We are implicated in this because of our diplomatic and financial support for Sisi's dictatorship.

KELEMEN: A former political prisoner now in the U.S., Egyptian American Mohamed Soltan, says there are more than 65,000 political prisoners still being held in Egypt, including his father. And Soltan says when he speaks out, his family members back home suffer.

MOHAMED SOLTAN: My cousins have been routinely arrested and released every time I'm active or every time I give a hearing in Congress. This is a systemic issue, and again, not just happen - that happens to me.

KELEMEN: He knows a couple dozen Egyptian Americans whose families face threats back home. His organization, The Freedom Initiative, calls this transnational repression meant to intimidate Egypt's critics in the United States.

SOLTAN: The sort of breadth and width and magnitude of the Egypt's repression has been not just far-reaching within Egypt, but has now touched people in the United States, which makes it very, very scary.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration has held up $130 million in aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, but that's just part of the $1.3 billion in annual assistance. And Soltan says it's time for the U.S. to live up to its promises to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THE LAST MAVERICK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.