by Seth Binder and William D. Hartung
This week’s presidential election in Egypt offers an opportunity to rethink the amount and purpose of U.S. military aid to that nation, which has totaled over $40 billion since the signing of the Camp David peace accords in 1979. Is U.S. aid helping Egypt to effectively combat a growing terrorist threat while maintaining good relations with Israel? Or is it bolstering a corrupt, undemocratic regime whose human-rights abuses have undermined its ability to unify the nation in the fight against terror?
At this point the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a democracy in name only. The only genuine candidates against al-Sisi in next week’s elections have withdrawn due to intimidation from the regime, including one who was jailed upon announcing his intention to run for president. And the remaining contender, who comes from a party that initially backed al-Sisi, has said that he’s not even interested in a pre-election debate because he’s “not here to challenge the president.”
Free and fair elections may not be happening, but Egypt does have legitimate threats to its security that must be taken into account in gauging the terms and amounts for U.S. aid. Terror attacks by groups like the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai have occurred frequently in recent years, resulting in hundreds of deaths to security forces and civilians. These have included the Palm Sunday bombings that killed 49 and Egypt’s deadliest terror attack in modern history, which killed 305 people in an attack on a Sufi mosque. Certainly helping Egypt address these threats is in the U.S. interest.
However, the Egyptian government has continuously and vigorously cracked down on freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, while targeting marginalized groups and any person or organization perceived to be a threat to the state. These harsh measures have in turn sowed the seeds for an increase in terrorism throughout Egypt. Security forces have committed gross human-rights violations, including forcibly displacing thousands to create a buffer zone along the Gaza border, using U.S.-made cluster bombs, and engaging in documented cases of arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
What Egypt Gives the US
Washington expects Cairo to return the favor for U.S. aid by providing fly-over rights for U.S. aircraft, expedited access through the Suez canal for the U.S. Navy, counterterrorism cooperation, and maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. Putting these purported security benefits aside, the underlying issue is that Egypt is not playing the role of staunch ally worthy of over a billion dollars per year in military equipment and training.
The Egyptians have restricted access to the Sinai, not just for journalists, but for U.S. officials, making it nearly impossible for the United States to ensure that U.S. law and policy are upheld. And as the Government Accountability Office has discovered, Egypt has even restricted access for U.S. officials trying to carry out standard end-use monitoring checks to ensure U.S.-supplied weaponry is used for its intended purposes. The Egyptian government has also helped perpetuate anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories despite receiving 20 percent of its defense budget from U.S. military aid.
In addition, Egypt’s foreign policy has increasingly acted counter to U.S. interests. In Libya, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has actively supported anti-Islamist strongman General Khalifa Hiftar in opposition to U.S. policy of neutrality and a United Nations arms embargo. President al-Sisi has all but come out in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through a thinly veiled call to respect national sovereignty. Al-Sisi has also come to a preliminary agreement to allow the Russians to use Egypt’s airspace and military bases. For this access, the Russians have sold nearly $10 billion in military equipment to Egypt since 2008, including a recent deal for 50 Russian MiG-29 fighter jets. The Egyptians have also skirted sanctions, providing economic and military support to North Korea including, according to a New York Times report, the purchase of 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades by the Arab Organization for Industrialization, one of Egypt’s main military-run businesses.
It is often suggested that U.S. aid ensures Egypt will honor the nearly 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel. Congress has even codified this as a condition for continuing to provide aid. Yet, Egypt has its own reasons to maintain the treaty. The two countries share similar security threats that have led to increased security cooperation, but they have also continued to develop economic ties, most recently signing a $15 billion gas deal.
The U.S. government once considered military aid to Egypt as sacrosanct, but the funding has received more scrutiny recently. The Trump administration continues to request the traditional $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) per year, but so far it has upheld the Obama administration’s restructuring of the aid. This includes maintaining the elimination of cash-flow financing, a credit-card approach where Egypt could use expected future aid to acquire military equipment.
The Trump administration also reprogrammed $65.7 million in FMF and withheld an additional $195 million following the State Department’s inability to certify the required congressional condition that Egypt was making progress on democracy and human rights. Instead of reprogramming the $195 million, the administration took the odd step of using its national-security waiver to allow the release of the funds to Egypt at a later date.
Congress has continued to condition U.S. military aid on a variety of concerns including democracy and human rights, but the national-security waiver has often allowed aid to flow with minimal repercussions for Egypt. In the most dramatic move in recent memory, the Senate appropriations committee sought to cut the FMF aid by $300 million, but that effort has stalled in continuing resolutions.
Ultimately, the lasting impact of decades of providing over $1 billion in military aid to Egypt per year is not just the massive number of tanks and missiles, but the military’s influence over the Egyptian state. For example, the military’s role in the economy is thought to be somewhere between 40 and 60 percent and includes businesses involved in nearly every sector, from foodstuffs and real estate to construction and electronics. U.S. military aid is not cash that can be diverted for personal benefit. But agreements that allow for U.S. aid to be spent on economic activities within Egypt, like co-production of the M-1 Abrams tank, have helped perpetuate military-run businesses that lack transparency and oversight.
It’s time to rethink the military aid the United States should provide to Egypt and under what conditions. The current system isn’t working.
The equipment and training supplied with U.S. assistance should be relevant to the anti-terror mission. The Obama administration made an important step in the right direction when it ended cash-flow financing and de-emphasized sales of big-ticket items with little relevance to Egypt’s most urgent security needs and focused instead on equipment and training relevant to four key priorities: counter-terrorism, maritime security, border protection, and security in the Sinai Peninsula.
Respect for human rights, transparency in military operations, and genuine efforts to limit civilian casualties are preconditions for effective counter-terrorism operations. Continued U.S. military aid to Egypt should be conditioned on these criteria.
The level of U.S. military aid to Egypt should be tied to the level of security benefits the U.S. receives in return. The fact that Egypt currently consumes nearly one-quarter of all assistance under the FMF program and historically has been one of the largest recipients of military aid suggests that a realignment may be in order.
It’s long past time to reconsider the amount, content, and conditions under which the United States continues to provide military assistance to Egypt. Such substantial support for an increasingly authoritarian regime does not serve the long-term interests of Egypt or the United States.
Seth Binder is an expert in security assistance and Middle East affairs at Strategic Research & Analysis.