Strong US ties with Egypt is the best hope for human rights
On Feb. 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that human rights will be “central” to bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo.
Indeed, President Joe Biden has pledged to advance “human rights and democracy around the world,” dedicating a new senior position on his National Security Council to this effort. Many commentators have urged Biden to begin with the world’s most populous Arab country, Egypt.
This past July, Biden himself tweeted “No more blank checks for Trump’s “favorite dictator,””regarding Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
The Biden administration has promised to prioritize human rights and democracy, pledging to work with allies to counter Russia and China. Yet, further conditions placed upon U.S. security assistance would support the perception that the United States is an unreliable partner and encourage Egypt’s efforts to diversify relationships with these same competitors who are happy to sell weapons sans strings attached.
When Egypt’s military ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the Obama administration suspended a significant portion of military sales, pending “progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.” At perhaps the most tumultuous point in modern Arab history, Cairo felt abandoned by the United States. The Egyptian government faced unrest and Islamist violence, extremists were on the rise in the Sinai, on its Western border with Libya and throughout the region as states fell like dominoes. Egypt thus looked to satisfy its defense requirements elsewhere, primarily with Russia and France.
Since then, Congress continues to place regular human rights holds on military aid, including the withholding of $300 million in security assistance each year until the Secretary of State certifies that Egypt is taking various steps toward supporting democracy. The Secretary of State can instead sign a national security waiver and has done so during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
The result of these regular holds has not been a more democratic Egypt but rather, continued significant degradation of America’s credibility as a strategic partner, diminished influence with Cairo and a boon to competitors happy to fill the gap. To be more specific, between 2000 and 2009 sales from the United States accounted for 75 percent of Egypt’s total arms imports. During the subsequent decade, only 23 percent of Egypt’s total arms imports have been of U.S. origin, with the rise in non-U.S. arms purchases skyrocketing just after 2013.
Defense contracts are about much more than the sale of equipment. Military sales are defined by the government-to-government relationships they build through sustainment for years to come — and provide access and leverage to collaborate in promoting U.S. interests, as well as a level of control over how sophisticated technology is used.
Given its location between Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean with a population of over 100 million on Europe’s southern flank, Egypt is a key theater for great power competition. Cairo controls the Suez Canal, the strategic maritime choke point connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas as the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia. In addition to its commercial significance, overflight and quick-turn access through the Suez are critical for ongoing U.S. military operations across United States Central Command. Amid rising threats from Iran in 2019 for example, the Egyptian Navy expedited transit of USS Abraham Lincoln and its associated bombers through the Suez to the region.
Every year, the U.S. and Egypt agree on a five-year security assistance roadmap prioritizing the $1.3 billion in annual military aid around the intersection of Egypt’s security needs and U.S. national security interests: counterterrorism, Sinai security, border security and maritime security.
Egypt’s central location also means it faces a myriad threats on multiple fronts, which if not contained, will not only destabilize the country but would likely further exacerbate profound regional tensions. Libya’s persistent civil war continues on Egypt’s western border, an increasingly kinetic ISIS insurgency in North Sinai rages along the Israeli border, water scarcity is exacerbated by construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Turkish adventurism rises around the Mediterranean and Iran-backed Houthis menace the Red Sea. Not to mention the threat of violent Islamist groups within Egypt’s mainland.
The Biden administration is now scrutinizing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE which the U.S. has already committed to under the previous administration. There is no greater gift to our adversaries.
“Some regimes’ biggest mistake is that they want the US to bring them national security,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently tweeted. “They spend billions of dollars, are humiliated & in the end the US doesn’t give them security when needed. Examples are what happened to US allies in Egypt, Tunisia, & Pahlavi in Iran.”
What is the alternative to the Al Sisi Government? Egypt’s “full transition” to civilian rule which the Obama administration pushed gave birth to another pharoh, Mohammed Morsi; an Islamist whose ideology is based upon anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism. Indeed, as Egypt expert Eric Trager notes, the Muslim Brotherhood shares ISIS’s ultimate aim — creating a global Islamic state — but for now prefers to attain this goal through the ballot box.
Shortly after narrowly winning Egypt’s first free elections in 2012, President Morsi effectively granted himself absolute power and hurriedly ratified a new theocratic constitution drafted with Salafist allies. Egyptians took to the streets again in 2013 to protest against Morsi’s despotic acts and the military ousted the president in July of that year. Just over the border in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, Hamas, has ruled since 2007. What would the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt have become, had Morsi stayed in power longer?
Conditioning or halting military assistance to Cairo in the name of democracy and human rights promotion will undermine U.S. national security interests, as well as our credibility as an ally, all while helping Russia and China’s aim to overtake the United States as the Middle East security partner of choice.
To be sure, Title 22 and Title 10 Leahy Laws already prohibit U.S. security assistance to all foreign units who commit gross human rights violations. This is good policy. But the least productive way to encourage democracy in Egypt is to push Cairo under the umbrella of some of the world’s worst human rights violators like Beijing and Moscow.
Washington is more effectively able to advance our principles with partner nations when we have leverage and influence. Turning our backs on our allies and security commitments runs counter to this aim.
Simone Ledeen is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy (2020-2021), is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. https://mei.edu/profile/simone-ledeen