A major human rights group has accused the Egyptian military of human rights violations on the Sinai Peninsula and is calling for the U.S. government to halt security assistance to the country, which includes arms exports and joint training between the Egyptian military and U.S. forces.

Egypt stepped up its operations in the north of the Sinai Peninsula after the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sissi, who led a 2013 coup and was elected president in mid-2014. The peninsula is home to various terror groups, but the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is the most prominent.

Egypt has used U.S. military aid to purchase major U.S. defense systems, such as the F-16 fighter aircraft, the M1A1 Abrams battle tank, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and Humvees, some of which have seen combat on the Sinai Peninsula.

U.S. Central Command also recently restarted Operation Bright Star, a major military exercise dating back to the 1980s that went through a hiatus period after the Arab Spring and a series of coups in Egypt. The exercise was revived in 2017 and held again in 2018, focusing on irregular warfare and regional security cooperation.

These connections are designed to strengthen U.S.-Egyptian relations and increase regional stability in an area that borders another major U.S. ally, Israel. However, Human Rights Watch released a report Monday condemning Egyptian forces for a series of arbitrary arrests — allegedly including children — forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and forced evictions.

HRW said that thousands of people have been arrested and hundreds disappeared since 2013.

A U.S. State Department official said that their offices are aware of the report’s call to halt U.S. security assistance to Egypt. However, they added that the aid “has long played a central role in Egypt’s economic and military development, and in furthering regional stability,” as well as “countering the Iranian regime’s dangerous activities” and regional terror groups.

“We continue to work with Egypt to advance our strategic partnership and address our common challenges, which includes encouraging respect for and protection of basic rights and freedoms,” the official said on background. “We have raised — and will continue to stress at senior levels — the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the need for a robust civil society.”

Pentagon officials said they were reviewing the report, which recommended that the U.S. reevaluate its joint training exercises with the Egyptian military. But for now, nothing will change.

“Egypt remains an important security partner,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson said. “The U.S. strategic military-to-military relationship with Egypt remains unchanged.”

The U.S. government is responsible for vetting recipients of military aid. However, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report in 2016 found that Egyptian recipients were not being adequately vetted for end-use monitoring of U.S. equipment and human rights violations.

The Leahy Laws prohibit the State Department and Defense Department from providing military assistance to foreign security forces found to violate human rights.

Egyptian paratroopers along with a American and Jordanian Joint Terminal Attack Controller call for close-air support from Egyptian F-16s during Bright Star 2018 at Talet El Kief, Egypt, in September 2018. (Sr. Amn. Amanda Stanford/Air Force)
Egyptian paratroopers along with a American and Jordanian Joint Terminal Attack Controller call for close-air support from Egyptian F-16s during Bright Star 2018 at Talet El Kief, Egypt, in September 2018. (Sr. Amn. Amanda Stanford/Air Force)

The Egyptian military may also have conducted unlawful air and ground attacks that killed numerous civilians, including children, according the HRW report. The unlawful attacks include indiscriminate artillery shelling in places where there were no armed clashes occurring, according to victims cited by HRW. The report lists the names and circumstances behind some of these deaths.

HRW also noted the use of U.S.-made cluster bomb munitions in the Sinai Peninsula. While other countries have outlawed the use of these weapons due to their propensity to kill civilians and leave behind unexploded ordnance, Egypt and the U.S. have not.

Although Sinai-based militant groups use rocket-propelled grenades, landmines and improvised explosive devices, they do not typically use artillery, residents told HRW. Egyptian and Israeli forces both possess the capacity to conduct airstrikes and artillery attacks in North Sinai.

“Since 2013, Israel has not only allowed a build-up of Egyptian military presence in the area beyond the treaty stipulations, but also according to media reports and official statements, aided the Egyptian government forces and probably participated in airstrikes against ISIS-affiliated militants,” HRW officials wrote in their report.

HRW recommended that the U.S. government “halt all military and security assistance to Egypt," conditioning the resumption of the aid on "concrete improvement of human rights, including an independent investigation into and prosecutions of perpetrators of serious violations, including war crimes, in North Sinai.”

The report also recommended that a public report be produced on the extent to which U.S.-made equipment has been used in abuses in North Sinai.

The report urged U.S. officials to conduct an official review of the effectiveness of joint military exercises, including Egypt’s participation in all multilateral military exercises to prepare its forces to combat the threat from the ISIS affiliate in the region, and ensure that civilian casualty minimization is incorporated into all efforts.

All Egyptian security officials found to be complicit in gross human rights violations in the Sinai should be subject to visa bans and asset freezes pursuant to the Magnitsky Act of 2016 and White House Executive Order 13818, HRW officials wrote.