Egypt’s political future remains uncertain as the country risks repeatedly trading one strongman for another. Consecutive governments have consolidated power, restricted freedom of expression, cracked down on political rivals and critics, and ignored urgently needed economic reforms. The United States has long-term interests in Egypt’s security, stability, and prosperity. To help advance those interests, U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should adopt an Egypt policy that incentivizes Cairo to implement economic reforms and create government institutions that promote individual rights, freedom of expression, and regional security.
For decades, Cairo has received billions in military and civil foreign assistance from Washington, which designated Egypt a non-NATO ally in 1989. During this time, Egypt has cooperated with the United States and its regional allies to help counter terrorist and militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula and preserve peace and stability in the Middle East. Critically, foreign assistance has helped create the conditions for a sustainable peace between Egypt and Israel without the need for a major U.S. peacekeeping force. Instead, only 1600 personnel—from thirteen nations, including the United States—are based in the Sinai to ensure the 1979 peace agreement is upheld.
Since the July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, however, Egypt’s military regime has taken alarming steps to exert control over the country’s political system. Most recently, Egypt’s military council cleared the way for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s most powerful military leader, to run for president. In prior months, Egyptian authorities have closed television stations, restricted group protests, and jailed many leaders of the 2011 protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. In December 2013, Egypt’s interim government declared its main political opposition, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization. No doubt, Mohamed Morsi clearly abused the powers of the presidency during his short time in office. However, arbitrarily jailing or outright banning political rivals, even problematic ones, risks further polarizing Egypt by casting doubt on the government’s ability to create a genuinely impartial and inclusive political process.
Throughout Egypt’s turbulent transition, Washington has not struck the right balance between our security interests and aspiration values. For example, after the security forces of Egypt’s military-led government attacked protesters on the streets throughout the country in August 2013, President Obama asserted that America’s “traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.” However, U.S. military assistance to Egypt—the most visible aspect of the U.S.-Egypt partnership—largely continued. When the Obama administration finally did announce a partial—yet temporary—freeze in U.S. assistance to Egypt in October 2013, the White House sent mixed messages that failed to alter Cairo’s tactics. As the New York Times reported that month, “in explaining their specific steps, American officials sounded as if they were reaffirming a valuable relationship rather than delivering a rebuke.”
To make matters worse, the half-hearted measures were short-lived. After weeks of intense lobbying, the Obama administration convinced lawmakers in January 2014 to pass legislation that effectively lifted restrictions on U.S. foreign aid to Egypt. The bill provides nearly $1 billion in U.S. assistance if the Obama administration certifies that Egypt “has held a constitutional referendum, and is taking steps to support a democratic transition in Egypt.” It also authorizes an additional $576 million if the executive branch certifies Egypt “has held parliamentary and presidential elections, and that a newly elected Government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically.” What’s problematic, though, is that the conditions for releasing a majority of U.S. assistance to Egypt were met before President Obama even signed the bill into law.
While Egypt’s movement towards genuine representative democracy appears unlikely to proceed in the near-term, U.S. decision makers can still implement policies to positively influence aspects of Cairo’s political future.
First, Washington should overhaul U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt, creating concrete incentives to encourage Cairo to adopt economic and institutional reforms. America’s foreign assistance package to Cairo, which skews heavily towards military aid, is ill-equipped to advance current and long-term U.S. interests in Egypt. Indeed, Egypt faces daunting economic challenges—lack of foreign investment, massive government subsidies, and high unemployment rates—that will continue to fuel political instability, if left unresolved. It’s therefore imperative that Washington forge incentives that encourage Egypt’s leaders to implement real and meaningful reforms that will create jobs, expand the economy, and provide new opportunities for the country’s growing youth population. At the same time, U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should work with civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to educate political parties about the election process and platform building; promote an independent judiciary—free from the executive branch’s pressure—that respects due process and the rights of the Egyptian people; and reward Cairo when government institutions take steps to increase transparency and protect free speech and other civil liberties.
Second, the executive branch should not hesitate to leverage foreign assistance to pressure Egypt’s leaders at critical moments. For too long, the United States has worried that any conditioning or interruption of aid would limit America’s influence in Egypt. As a result, Washington has rarely utilized this tool of statecraft effectively to pressure Cairo. However, as the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld noted, “on the very few occasions that the United States has used aid to Egypt as leverage—to compel the release of an imprisoned dissident in 2002, to prevent the escalation of violence against protesters in February 2011 and to ensure that American non-governmental organization (NGO) workers facing trumped-up charges would be allowed to leave Egypt in 2012—it has been effective.”
Third, the United States should require that U.S. security assistance and military-to-military cooperation with Egypt be contingent upon Cairo upholding the peace treaty with Israel and respecting the rights of minorities, religious groups, and women. As the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt wrote in a letter to President Obama on January 29: “the United States must take extreme care to focus its terrorism and intelligence cooperation with Egypt on real threats to U.S. interests, and make clear to the Egyptian government that it will not endorse or contribute to an all-out war on the regime’s political opponents.”
Washington should make clear it will not tolerate U.S.-origin military equipment being used to counter peaceful protests or crack down on political opponents.
Egypt’s political transition is, once again, on the verge of completely derailing. To advance America’s long-term strategic interests and moral values, Washington should craft a new approach that links foreign assistance and governance outcomes in Egypt.
Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Revisorweb. CC BY-SA 2.0.