Is the United States resuming its chummy military relationship with Egypt, despite growing concern over the Sisi government's counterterrorism practices and grim human rights record?
Fallout from Egypt's 2013 military coup had disrupted the previously-steady stream of weapons and military aid flowing from Washington to Cairo. Now, General Dynamics and the Egyptian Tank Plant are set to resume co-production of American Abrams tanks, satisfying a 2011 order for 125 of the vehicles. The US also just fulfilled an Egyptian order for four F-16 fighter jets at the end of October.
President Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power in Egypt in July of 2013, with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi assuming leadership. Even while continuing to refuse to call Morsi's ouster a coup, the US froze military aid and suspended weapons transfers to Egypt, which had received for decades the second-largest share of American foreign military aid after Israel.
At the time, then-State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "we have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests." This balancing act — preserving the longstanding security partnership while also "recalibrating" things in order to avoid condoning the human rights abuses and heavy-handedness that have come to characterize the Sisi government — continues to prove tricky for Washington.
"Right now, there's a lot of concern inside the US government about the stability of Egypt, about the insurgency in the Sinai and the western desert," says Michele Dunne, Director and Senior Associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "I sense that US officials are torn. They fear abandoning Egypt… They don't want to see Egypt become Somalia on the Nile. But they … don't see the country stabilizing. They don't see the insurgency being defeated, and they don't see the economy reviving."
Torn or not, the US seems more or less ready to return to business as usual: Egypt's military aid was unfrozen in March and Cairo is now back on track to receive a total of $1.3 billion from the US this year. "It seems like the momentum is moving back toward what it was in the past," says Lawrence Rubin, assistant professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Egypt, meanwhile, has spent the past year and a half widening its diplomatic circle of friends, including strengthening its ties with Russia. This may not have had a significant impact on the US decision to resume military aid, which Rubin notes has likely been in the works for a long time. And what Russia can offer at the moment still pales in comparison to yearly sums in excess of a billion that Egypt can expect from the US.
Egypt's more cordial connection with Russia "does suggest that the Egyptian-American relationship is not nearly as tight nor as broadly geostrategic as it was essentially from 1975 right up until the last couple of years," says Robert Springborg, visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King's College, London.
Watch the VICE News documentary: Egypt Under Sisi
Some new strings are now attached to the US military aid destined for Egypt, including alterations intended to prioritize America's goals for the region. Starting in 2018, the US will no longer allow Egypt to buy military equipment on credit against future aid. And what Egypt chooses to buy with the aid money will be closely examined to ensure it's relevant to specific categories of concern: counterterrorism, border security, maritime security, and Sinai security.
These new conditions attempt to alter the historic bilateral partnership, one that has amounted to $76 billion (not adjusted for inflation) since 1948, and try to bring it into the 21st century. Springborg notes that the relationship as it stands is not only out of sync with current threats and strategic interests but is also no longer relevant to international circumstances.
"This massive security assistance program was designed to be part of a much broader relationship as Egypt was reoriented away from the Soviet Union [during the 1970s]. It was to guarantee a peace with Israel. It was to make Egypt a vital ally of the US. These conditions no longer apply," Springborg argues. "The security assistance program stands out as being inappropriate, in light of the lack of the broader [conditions] that it was meant to address. The Cold War is over. Egypt is at peace with Israel. It's an anachronistic program to say the least."
Worse than anachronistic, the policy may in fact be counterproductive, if not downright appalling. "Neither cutting aid nor providing aid seems to have put the United States in the position of having much effect on the positions of the [Sisi] government,' notes Dunne. Furthermore, the weapons the US provides may be being used towards less-than-savory ends. "The Egyptian army, in fighting militants in the Sinai, is using American weaponry for a strategy that seems to involve a good [number] of strikes on civilian targets, on villages and so forth that are believed to be harboring militants."
The resumed co-production of the M1A1 Abrams tanks and the deliveries of the F-16 fighter jets that have made the news in recent days are evidence that Washington is not adhering to its own policies, says Springborg. "The US is continuing to supply the two principal weapons systems that were part and parcel of the original agreement and that is the F16s and the M1A1 tanks," he says. But that agreement "runs counter to the express new policy guidelines by the Obama administration and is reflective not of any security threat or any need … but of the power of the defense industry in Congress, and of the desire of the Egyptian military to continue the production lines in Egypt."
Much of the justification for the size and strength of the military relationship between the US and Egypt is based on Egypt's role as a counterterrorism partner and its importance in maintaining regional stability. Sisi's actions now make that justification a hard pill to swallow. In the wake of the coup against Morsi, tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and suspected sympathizers were rounded up and arrested. Protests that summer were violently dispersed. Police and security forces killed an estimated 904 people on August 14, 2013 when they broke up two sit-ins being staged in Raba'a and al-Nahda. Human Rights Watch has called these killings "probable crimes against humanity," while also noting that under the Sisi government, Sinai has seen a sharp rise in insurgent attacks and government counter-violence.
"Those types of human rights abuses have largely been brushed under the table," says Rubin, who notes that conditions in Egypt "toward the end of the Mubarak regime were probably much freer than right now."
Many critics are pointing to the destabilizing effect of the regime's handling of opposition and its response to security threats. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution testified before the House of Representatives this week that the Sisi presidency's "heavy-handed approach to Sinai security has fueled the extremist insurgency there, calling into question Egypt's role as a reliable counterterrorism partner."
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Photo via US National Archives