High Expectations: Egypt-US Relations in the Age of Trump
Co-authored with Amr Kotb.
Earlier this month, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry visited Washington, meeting with members of Congress, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and newly minted national security adviser H.R. McMaster. While the trip addressed Egypt-U.S. relations, it also set the stage for an upcoming Egyptian delegation that will include President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The visits come on the back of what one State Department official privately described as Cairo’s “high expectations” for changes to bilateral relations.
Where the Obama administration’s approach featured a hesitant embrace of Egypt’s economic reform plan, on-and-off sponsorship of the war on terror, and (often perfunctory) criticism of Cairo’s human rights offenses, Sisi now seeks a blank check and President Trump’s outright support. In this vein, the delegation will seek to roll back already-tepid democracy and human rights conditions on its $1.3 billion in foreign military financing, as well as advocate for the continuation of cash flow financing (CFF, which allows Egyptians to buy defense equipment on credit) after a 2015 White House statement it would be terminated in 2018.
One of Sisi’s more outspoken supporters within the U.S. Congress, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), recently kicked off a delegation to Egypt by introducing legislation to continue CFF. Sources in Congress have confirmed that the Egyptians are anticipating that the proposal gain ground, but the fact is, the financing package has not been a particularly effective means of addressing Egypt’s security challenges.
The defense articles the assistance package sponsors were described by one State Department official as “shiny toys” geared toward conventional warfare as opposed to weaponry appropriate for Egypt’s counterinsurgency threat. A lack of access to Sinai (for independent monitors and U.S. military counterparts) make it impossible to monitor programs’ effectiveness. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military is continuing slash-and-burn campaigns that destroy the local economy, alienate residents and fuel antagonism.
The result has been a significant deterioration in Egypt’s security situation, with the monthly rate of terror attacks more than doubling in the country from 2013-2016. The Islamic State remains as active as ever in North Sinai, most recently driving hundreds of minority Christians out of the peninsula after a spree of horrific assassinations.
Last month, Trump and his Cabinet mulled designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) reintroducing legislation encouraging the designation in January. The Muslim Brotherhood is undoubtedly problematic: Its declared vision is to create an Islamic state and it has adopted variable views on violence through its long history in order to achieve this goal. But it is also fractured, a shell of its former self in Egypt after a relentless campaign to eradicate it, with its branches in Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey peacefully holding seats in government.
In Egypt, the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in late 2013 has actually obscured and complicated any investigation into the group’s ties to known jihadist groups. Ample evidence exists to suggest that some factions of the Brotherhood have indeed been involved in sponsoring or carrying out violence in the country, despite a declared disavowal from the leadership. But while Cairo has implicated the Brotherhood in nearly every act of terrorism, more transparent research and investigation is needed to examine links between the Brotherhood and violent organizations.
Should the United States follow in Egypt’s footsteps and declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization outright, its ability to make such a determination will be complicated — not just in Egypt, but across the region. Moreover, the Egyptian government has arrested Brotherhood members who have not committed acts of violence based on this indiscriminate designation, a practice that may reduce incentives to remain peaceful. The terrorist designation can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Furthermore, Egypt’s war on terror has paved the way for a crackdown that has expanded to target non-governmental organizations and to legitimate extrajudicial actions such as the rampant use of torture and indiscriminate arrest. Repression of civil society has been paired with the government’s overt disregard for accountability, yielding an environment of impunity. There is almost no better example of this than Alaa Abed, one of the key delegates slated to come to Washington as part of Sisi’s delegation.
Abed is a former Ministry of Interior official who faces serious accusations of torture. Ironically, he also holds the seat of chairman of the Human Rights Committee in Egypt’s House of Representatives; his “election” to this post (which he won after the previous chairman was forced out for having attended a human rights convention in Geneva) underscores the security apparatus’ control over all aspects of Egyptian politics, and the regime’s tendency to view human rights as a security concern. Yet, the curtailment of essential rights and freedoms that have escalated in the past year have driven instability and insecurity in the country, as marked not only by terror attacks but also by unpredictable moments of social unrest.
In their meetings with the Egyptian delegation, U.S. officials should remain firm on the necessity of human rights to the maintenance of security and stability in the country. Particularly, they must insist on the protection of civil society as important to a country’s social and economic health, especially during a time of economic crisis when non-governmental organizations are needed to hold the state accountable and provide essential services to citizens.
This point should be clear for Washington, as many of the Egyptian organizations are being targeted as part of Case 173, which saw U.S.-funded NGOs shuttered and their workers handed hefty sentences. To match its strong message, U.S. policymakers should also reconsider the assistance package as an important point of leverage, catering defense equipment to the threat at hand, insisting on opportunities for monitoring and evaluation, and preserving conditionality on democracy and human rights issues.
President Obama’s inability to substantively reexamine U.S. foreign policy with Egypt proved costly, not just to Egyptian stability and security but to America’s credibility and reputation in the international community. If the Trump administration does indeed meet Sisi’s high expectations, the outcome will be even more costly.