On April 3, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made his first visit to the White House in a meeting with President Donald Trump. Referencing the United States’ $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt, Trump promised “strong backing” to strongman Sisi, who was barred from the Obama White House over scores of state-perpetrated human rights abuses. Sisi in turn committed Egypt to a support role in the intensifying U.S. counterterrorism campaign in the Middle East. All signs point to an invigorating “new spirit”—as Sisi put it—in U.S.-Egypt relations. However, the United States should not deepen military ties with a militarized state; it should instead recognize the increasing burden—both financial and strategic—that its support for Egypt represents, and reduce its military aid to the Sisi regime in renunciation of Egypt’s institutionalized human rights abuse and counterproductive security strategy.
Egypt has long maintained one of the world’s most reprehensible human rights regimes, with political dissent and social noncompliance meeting brutal repression. The country’s security apparatus, a rent-seeking giant which proved itself effectively autonomous from the state in the 2011 uprising and ensuing coup d’etat, has widely used warrantless searches, travel bans, asset freezes, prosecution without evidence or due process, and violence to silence perceived opposition. Forced disappearances are estimated to at rates between two to five persons disappeared daily. Even the act of peaceful protest, which shaped Egypt’s global image at the beginning of the decade, has been criminalized when lacking government approval.
The victims of government abuses range from Islamists and atheists to human rights defenders and even insurgents. In 2013, Egypt’s military-backed interim government declared the Muslim Brotherhood––the primary national opposition group long targeted by state oppression––a terrorist organization and seized the Islamist group’s assets, including numerous schools, hospitals, and charitable foundations that had previously been left untouched even amid parallel political persecution. A year later, the Egyptian government sentenced 529 Muslim Brothers to death over two hearings in a mass kangaroo trial, and the organization is today struggling for survival. Opposite the ideological spectrum, atheists have been driven into the shadows by intense enforcement of blasphemy laws. Activists and journalists in 2016 confronted interference varying from operation shutdowns to detention and even torture en masse. In its counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt also faces various well-grounded accusations of extrajudicial killings and “scorched earth” tactics.
Rather than stabilizing the region, Washington’s $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt actively undermines Middle Eastern security. Broad human rights abuses by an ally perpetuate the image of “America the hypocrite” in a region already deeply distrusting of, if not openly hostile to, the United States. Although Egyptian patrols do target supply lines to the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Libya and contain domestic terror cells, Egyptian military activity also serves to tyrannize and radicalize. The political repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has always instilled resentment, but with the introduction of near-complete social exclusion under Sisi, the deeply rooted organization lacks not only political channels to address its grievances, but also any social control to appease it—a combination encouraging political and even totalizing violence. A related dynamic exists in the Sinai insurgency, a long-running conflict with defiantly independent Bedouin populations and an IS affiliate. Positioned against a historical background of economic neglect and heavy-handed state tactics, the 2013 coup and ensuing crackdown on Islamists inspired an increase in the frequency and audacity of attacks on security forces and Coptic Christians.
But if aid were indeed reduced, how would Egypt’s positive military undertakings, such as actual counter-terrorism efforts, be affected? First, there would be no reduced incentive for Egypt to control its borders and fight insurgency. In a military state such as Egypt, security is the essence of the state. Would capacity to address true threats decay? This depends on the scenario. Egypt’s vast military structure might be tempted to raise its domestically generated revenue, but with the economy just beginning to crawl out of recession, that is a risk Sisi is not likely to take. Viewing Egypt as the keystone to their own security, gulf nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait—which together pledged to invest $12 billion in Egypt’s economy only two years ago—would likely be willing and able to fill the gap left by the United States should they perceive any weakness. Unless that need is fulfilled, Egypt would be forced to prioritize those truly existential threats over ideology or face its own downfall.
President Obama saw something similar. In 2013, he instituted a partial freeze on all but humanitarian aid to Egypt following the military coup and the massacre of nearly one thousand pro-Brotherhood demonstrators. Fully reinstating aid was made conditional on Egypt adopting democratic reforms. Only two years passed, however, before Obama decided to reverse course and reinstitute aid—despite Egypt having not adapted at all to Washington’s standards—in “the interest of national security.” Worries today about aid cuts stem particularly from the U.S. military, which relies on the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace to quickly move its own ships and aircraft between the Mediterranean and Pacific. Still, the world’s military superpower stands to bear the logistical inconvenience. Rerouting U.S. squadrons and repositioning fleets between the Mediterranean and Pacific might be a headache, but it emphatically rejects the perception of U.S. dependence on Egypt, substantially adding to Washington’s bargaining power.
Egypt is currently less of a strategic U.S. ally than it is a millstone, or, at the very least, it is not an ally generating $1.3 billion in returns. It receives the second highest U.S. aid package (second only to Israel) though, considering Egypt’s actual role in regional security and the advancement of human and civil rights, the relationship is far overpriced. With its aid, the United States even fails to ensure its contributions are reciprocated with increased sway in the relationship. What can the United States ask of Egypt besides domestic reform? In Israel and Palestine, the unique role Egypt has played as a credible third-party mediator is nearly exhausted as prospects for a peaceful, internationally-backed settlement appear increasingly grim while the same cast of actors grows less and less likely to change minds. Today, domestic reform it is.
Considering its failure to produce any Egyptian compliance thus far, Washington must look to reduce—not increase—its military investment in Egypt, fully utilizing the leverage it inherently possesses as the donor. While some diplomatic distancing is bound to occur, it will not be drastic. The United States is viewed as a security guarantor should the region descend into further chaos, and that position as ally of last resort remains valuable. Military aid is far from all that ties the United States and Egypt together; they do indeed have common interests. The problem lays in the easily abused and damaging framework fashioned to approach those interests. The United States should instead look to develop a scale of compliance to determine how much aid is merited. Given so many met conditions, such percentage of the $1.3 billion would be awarded. The expectations must be clear, and the United States must lock itself into the system through formal policy. Credible monitoring arrangements must be established as well. For instance, if the United States is to continue supplying and servicing weapons and equipment, it should require access to assess the use of such weapons and equipment, as difficult a political and logistical goal that may be.
Keeping the door open to full future aid should Egypt rise to meet meaningful conditions, the United States should look not to cut global aid spending, but to restructure it. The state of Egypt’s security and human rights will remain pertinent to U.S. interests regardless of political changes. As Egypt continues to grow and develop, it will only become more relevant to the United States and world. At the moment, however, there are better and more necessary investments for ensuring regional security and consolidating the U.S. position in world politics. The true opportunity cost of the $1.3 billion is much-needed investments in those actors playing more active stabilizing roles, such as Jordan or Lebanon, that deal directly with spillover from Iraq and Syria in refugee intake and even counter-terrorism efforts, or even those in the region attempting to institutionalize civic and human rights, namely Tunisia. Washington would be wise to reconsider its aid to Egypt.