Commentary: Five myths about U.S. aid to Egypt

August 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the massacre at Cairo’s Rabaa and Nahda Squares, in which Egyptian security forces killed at least 800 supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi and injured thousands more. The Obama administration responded by reviewing military assistance to Egypt and withholding delivery of fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks, and missiles. Yet Barack Obama eventually yielded to Egyptian complaints and lifted the arms holds, despite the growing repression of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – minister of defense at the time of the killings – in order “to address the shared challenges to U.S. and Egyptian interests in an unstable region.”

Egyptian soldiers drive by Tahrir square in Cairo, August 6, 2015. The United States provides Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in military assistance. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Five years later, the Trump administration has backed down in its own military aid standoff with Egypt. Last August, amid concerns over Egyptian cooperation with North Korea and Sisi’s crackdown against civil society, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson froze $195 million in military assistance to Cairo. He conditioned its release on Egypt’s meeting three requirements: ending military and diplomatic cooperation with North Korea; resolving the case of 43 staff of American and German democracy NGOs convicted in 2013 on trumped-up charges; and repealing or amending a repressive law regulating the work of NGOs. On July 25, the Trump administration relented, announcing that it was releasing the suspended aid, despite the fact that Sisi’s government has not fully met even one of the U.S. conditions. The State Department justified the decision, saying, “strengthened security cooperation is important to U.S. national security.”

What explains why the Obama and Trump administrations — so divergent on U.S. foreign policy — share an unwillingness to sustain pressure on an increasingly authoritarian Egyptian government?

The common thread is the belief that Egypt is ultimately too important to U.S. interests to antagonize by withholding military aid, coupled with skepticism regarding the U.S. ability to pressure Egypt. If Egypt is critical to the United States and coercion is unlikely to change those Egyptian policies with which Washington disagrees, the thinking goes, the only logical policy is to provide Egypt with unquestioning support. This means that any deviation from the $1.3 billion in annual military assistance the United States has provided Egypt since 1987 entails an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to U.S. interests.

I heard such arguments while I served on President Obama’s National Security Council, and saw how they could override U.S. concerns about human rights violations and threats to long-term political stability. While these arguments are powerful, they are fundamentally mistaken. Indeed, these fundamental conceits are at the root of several persistent myths about Egypt that have distorted U.S. policy for years.

Myth 1: Egypt urgently needs the $1.3 billion for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai.

The Egyptian military has been struggling to defeat some 1,000 members of a Sinai Peninsula-based affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) for the past five years. Periodic military campaigns have failed to deal a decisive blow to the militants, and 2017 was the bloodiest year in modern Egyptian history, as measured by the death toll from terrorist attacks. Egypt requires U.S. assistance to address this challenge, but it needs training and advice, not more weapons.

When I served in the U.S. government, there was general recognition that Egypt already had enough weapons to win against IS. The real problem was how the Egyptian military used those weapons. Instead of adopting modern, effective counterinsurgency tactics that ousted IS from Iraq and Syria, Egypt’s armed forces continued to rely on the conventional approach of directing overwhelming force against militants embedded in residential communities. This heavy-handed strategy has alienated the local Sinai population, without whose support a lasting victory against IS is nearly impossible.

Myth 2: Sisi is a “moderate” Arab voice who is leading the fight against extremism.

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The West has praised Sisi’s calls for a “religious revolution” in Islam, but in reality he has done little to combat extremist views. Blasphemy convictions against those perceived to have offended Islam have increased since Sisi became president, and pervasive discrimination against Coptic Christians continues. Moreover, Sisi has presided over an unprecedented level of political repression that is fueling radicalization amongst Egyptian youth. Several prominent former Egyptian prisoners have reported that IS is finding new recruits among those jailed with hardened militants in over-crowded prisons. Indeed, it appears that the suicide bomber in a December 2016 church attack that killed 26 people was radicalized in an Egyptian prison.

Myth 3: If the United States does not provide Egypt with the full $1.3 billion, Egypt will turn to Russia and Egyptian-Israeli peace will be at risk.

Egypt is seeking to play off the United States and Russia against each other to maximize its leverage, not to replace the United States with Russia. Egypt will continue to work with Washington to get what it cannot from Moscow — such as free weapons and military equipment and access to international markets — while maintaining ties to the Kremlin to strengthen its bargaining position.

The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty is no longer dependent on U.S. mediation or intervention. Egypt has no interest in conflict with Israel, which has become one of Cairo’s most important regional partners. In fact, Egypt has allowed Israel to conduct airstrikes on Egyptian territory against mutual enemies, something that was unthinkable 40 years ago.  

Myth 4: U.S. funding guarantees important privileges from the Egyptian government, such as Suez Canal access and overflight rights.

The passage of U.S. naval vessels through the Suez Canal is not funded by U.S. military aid. Indeed, the U.S. Navy, like all other navies, pays the Egyptian government a fee for each ship that transits the canal. These fees are an important source of foreign currency, making it very unlikely Cairo would block U.S. ships from using the canal.

Egypt does not charge the U.S. for allowing its airplanes to cross Egyptian airspace, but this access is declining in importance as Trump seeks to withdraw U.S. forces from the Middle East and the U.S. military increasingly relies on Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Myth 5: U.S. pressure on Egypt simply does not work.

This is wrong on two counts. First, U.S. pressure on Egypt has delivered results in cases like the release of Americans wrongly imprisoned by the Egyptian regime, including Mohamed Soltan and Aya Hijazi, and in deterring the government from following through on Sisi’s 2014 threat to close down unregistered NGOs. Most recently, Tillerson’s aid suspension was beginning to pay off, prompting the Egyptian government to finally allow a retrial in the 2013 NGO case and to scale back Egypt’s relations with North Korea.

Second, perceived failures, such as the Obama administration’s hold on military equipment, may have more to do with unrealistic time horizons and giving up too soon. Aid suspensions are, in effect, sanctions, and we know from both practice and academic scholarship that such pressure takes time to change behavior.  

Once these myths are corrected, the case for using U.S. military assistance to influence Egyptian policies is bolstered. In light of all this, the Trump administration’s decision to release the suspended military assistance is deeply disappointing. By backing down prematurely the White House has again been played by a foreign country — and the U.S. interest in Egypt’s long-term stability will suffer.

About the Author

Andrew Miller is the deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy POMED and is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously worked at the Department of State and as the director for Egypt and Israeli Military Issues at the National Security Council from 2014–2017 @AndrwPMiller

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.