I think that this administration has made little secret of its low regard for human rights. I also feel that we have a secretary of state who has gone out of his way to downplay the benefits of a values-based foreign policy. All of which makes the decision to deny military assistance to Egypt last week a complete surprise.
Up for grabs was nearly $96 million in military and economic assistance, which the Trump administration cancelled, and another $195 million in military assistance that it chose to keep behind a fence, contingent on the Egyptian government fulfilling as yet unspecified human rights criteria.
The United States initiated the transfer of large-scale foreign aid to Egypt after the Camp David peace agreement in 1979. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, successive administrations have struggled to combine concern over deteriorating human rights conditions with a desire to maintain a strong bilateral relationship on terms agreeable to leaders in Cairo. The result has been halting policy.
President Obama suspended military assistance after the coup and ensuing violence that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in July 2013, including the killing of hundreds of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi in August 2013. However, Obama lifted this suspension in March 2015 despite no improvement in the country’s human rights situation. Thirteen years prior, President George W. Bush threatened to withhold $130 million in foreign assistance over the imprisonment of human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, but did not follow through after Congress declined to appropriate additional funding.
Over time, the debate about foreign aid to Egypt has spawned several shibboleths The Egyptian government, for its part, has come to regard American aid as an entitlement related solely to maintaining peace with Israel. Its officials reject suggestions that they should do anything further in return for billions of dollars in military assistance. On the American side, one often hears that the U.S. government has no influence over what the Egyptian government does about human rights, or that maintaining good relations at all costs, especially with the Egyptian military, is a necessary evil to guard U.S. security.
In that regard, Secretary Tillerson, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, and other members of the Trump administration deserve credit for breaking taboos. Egypt has received none of the rewards that it expected, given Trump’s warm embrace of Sisi, and instead faces the non-resumption of cash-flow financing removed by the Obama administration, which enabled the Egyptian military to purchase expensive equipment on credit paid for over multiple years, no loan guarantees, no increase in foreign assistance, and no end to human rights criticisms.
Notably, however, other aspects of the relationship have not suffered. Presidential envoy Jared Kushner and Powell met with President Sisi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in Cairo on Aug. 23 despite reports that Egypt might cancel the visits in protest. And joint military exercises between the two countries, known as Bright Star, are scheduled to resume later this year, after an eight-year hiatus. It would appear that the United States can exert pressure on the Egyptian government on human rights issues while also conducting other important bilateral business.
In keeping with an administration that has elevated messaging dissonance into fine art, the Trump administration would have benefitted from a clearer announcement of its new policy. Prior to an official announcement, news dripped out of the State Department over two days. Perhaps this was intentional. As other commentators have pointed out, the Trump administration’s style seems to be the inverse of previous administrations. The Bush and Obama administrations each admonished Egypt in public over its poor human rights record, but then stepped back from making Egypt pay in loss of foreign aid.
By all indications, it appears that in making their decision, senior U.S. officials took exception to Sisi misleading them about Egypt’s new, repressive NGO law. It seems probable that Sisi will now be forced to revisit the law and fulfill other, unspecified human rights obligations, if Egypt is to receive the $195 million of military assistance that Tillerson now has under his control.
The Trump administration’s strategy of balancing public friendliness with a few specific human rights demands carries risks. Keeping secret whatever conditions it has relayed to the Egyptian government increases suspicion of backroom deals.
Amending the new NGO law, while positive, is hardly a sufficient response to Egypt’s severe human rights crisis.To regain a stable footing, the Egyptian government should not only end its sustained assault on independent civil society organizations, but also free political prisoners, end torture, stop disappearances and extrajudicial killings, and protect religious minorities.
Enforcing strong human rights conditions serves the interests of both Egyptians and Americans. Sisi’s repressive methods have contributed to an unprecedented escalation in political violence and a proliferation of terrorist attacks. They therefore weaken the U.S battle against ISIS and other violent extremist groups.
Congress, as it considers what human rights language to include in the fiscal 2018 foreign assistance package, should feel empowered by the administration’s decision. It should apply stringent conditions to at least 15 percent of Egypt’s military assistance package. To send an even stronger message to Cairo, it should remove the national security waiver inserted in previous iterations of law. Were it to do so, there will be no doubt that if Sisi chooses to persist in his disastrous course, he would pay a definite price.
Neil Hicks is the director of human rights promotion at Human Rights First, which is an independent advocacy and action organization.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.