U.S. Military Aid to Egypt Should Transcend Politics
It is advantageous for the United States to maintain its military aid to Egypt without implementing slight reductions that may not influence Egypt’s policies on homeland security or defense against foreign threats.
In 2022, the United States and Egypt marked the centennial of their diplomatic relations. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up his fourth visit to the Middle East in late January 2023, with stops in Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank, he acknowledged the strong U.S.-Egypt strategic partnership and Egypt’s contributions to regional stability and international security. He also emphasized ongoing bilateral cooperation and defense ties. President Joe Biden had previously highlighted Egypt as a key partner in the U.S.-led global climate agenda during his visit to Sharm El-Sheikh for COP27 last November.
Given Egypt’s significance, it is important that the U.S. Government align with its National Security Strategy, which places priority on “making sure [U.S. partners] can defend themselves against foreign threats,” all while fostering human rights and human security. This includes supporting Egypt with U.S. military aid for defense security, as well as economic aid directed to human security, through both government-to-government partnerships and people-to-people ties.
Egypt a key pillar in U.S. regional security architecture
Egypt has been an integral part of the United States’ Middle East security policy since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The inclusion of Israel and Egypt, a former Soviet ally, in the U.S. camp required both countries to feel militarily secure in relation to one other and against new emerging threats. This resulted in the provision of U.S. military aid to both countries. It is important for the U.S. Congress to consider the long-standing U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian trilateral relationship before making future decisions to halt U.S. military aid to Egypt.
The Congress should also recognize that U.S. military aid enables Egypt to receive U.S.-made arms through what is essentially store credit, making it more of a subsidy to the domestic U.S. defense industry than a gratuity to Egypt. Every year, Congress allocates $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt. However, the funds never reach Egypt directly. Instead, they are transferred to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then to a trust fund at the Treasury, finally being distributed to U.S. military contractors who manufacture the tanks and fighter jets that are ultimately delivered to Egypt. This gives the United States oversight over the way funds are dispersed. Thus, it is important for Congress to consider U.S. military aid as a means of maintaining regional peace and security, as well as an economic driver for the domestic U.S. defense industry, rather than a significant financial burden on the U.S. budget.
Criticism of U.S. Military Aid to Egypt
Egypt has been criticized for its choice of military equipment requests, especially tanks and F-16 fighter jets, with some experts saying back in 2013 that the tanks are not well-suited for the types of threats facing Egypt, such as terrorism and border security in the Sinai Peninsula. Legitimate questions were asked of the Egyptian military: What is the military’s objective? What do you see as the real threat? Some scholars exclaimed at the time that, “There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.”
But contrary to these assessments a decade ago, Egypt’s military strength served as a deterrent in a high-threat perception region. Turkey has been Egypt’s main perceived threat. Turkey’s military adventurism in Syria and encroachments on Libya raised red flags for Egypt regarding its western border. U.S. military advisers in Cairo had advised back in 2013 against further acquisitions of tanks or F-16s, as they deemed that Egypt already had more than it needs. However, the Egyptian military foresaw these weapons as crucial for their security. Following protocol, the United States decides which weapons to send to Egypt “in consultation with our partners’ own determination of their strategic and force structure requirements.”
The recent conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the value of tanks and F-16s as a deterrent. Supreme Allied Commander of Europe Christopher G. Cavoli recently stated two key facts: 1) Hard power is a reality; and 2) kinetic effects matter. “If the other guy shows up with the tank, you better have a tank,” he said. Egypt possesses 4,664 tanks, while Turkey has 2,229. In June 2020, speaking during an inspection visit to Sidi Barrani air force base on the Libyan border, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi declared the Libyan city of Sirte and Jufra airbase as a “red line.” Egypt’s possession of tanks has been a deterrent to Turkey’s encroachments onto Libya, leading to a ceasefire in that country.
Human Rights, Foreign Threats, and Homeland Security
Despite the historical and strategic importance of the U.S. military aid to Egypt, there have been further criticisms of the aid in recent years. Some argue that the aid is provided without sufficient considerations for human rights by the Egyptian government. Additionally, there have also been criticisms of the aid for being too focused on military equipment and not enough on other areas such as economic development and civil society.
The United States Government rightfully takes into account the human rights record of countries receiving aid as it charts its policies. While the assessment of human rights in Egypt has been a topic of detailed discussion, it is equally important to consider both foreign threats and homeland security when assessing criteria for providing military aid to U.S. strategic partners.
In the past decade, Egypt perceived the Turkey-Qatar alliance that formed around the Arab uprisings of 2011 as its primary foreign threat. Turkey pursued hegemonic and expansionist pan-Islamist policies throughout the region. In response, Egypt categorized the Muslim Brotherhood, which Turkey backed, as a transnational terrorist organization, not a domestic political faction. The Egyptian government detained and jailed numerous members and/or affiliates of the transnational group it banned and treated them as agents operating on behalf of foreign enemy states within the scope of informational warfare. Egypt’s human rights file worsened in response to these regional circumstances over the past decade.
However, with improvements in state-to-state relations between Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, on one hand, and Turkey and Qatar, on the other, following Al Ula Declaration in 2021, there is now room for the Egyptian government to treat Muslim Brotherhood members as individuals, i.e. not as a threatening transnational collective backed by foreign enemy states. Sisi and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan shook hands in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup, making a significant step toward normalization between the two regional rivals.
The recent changes in the region’s political landscape have opened up opportunities for the release and pardoning of numerous political prisoners. In light of this, U.S. State Department officials have recognized the “improvement” of human rights in Egypt, marked by the release of hundreds of individuals from Egyptian prisons over the past two years. To encourage further releases, the newly elected Congress should be cognizant of this progress.
Besides the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, Blinken was asked about the case of Alaa Abdel Fattah during his trip to Egypt. Blinken confirmed that he discussed individual cases with Egyptian officials but stated that the actions of the government are its own prerogatives. It is important to note that Abdel Fattah is not an Islamist but an anarchist who has a history of advocating for the collapse of the armed forces and police in Egypt. The United States should advocate for the individual human rights of Abdel Fattah and others, while acknowledging that promoting ideas that pose a security threat to a regional partner would be a risk.
Impact of Cutting Aid
Withholding military aid to Egypt also has negative impacts on Egypt’s ability to defend itself against foreign threats and support U.S. interests in regional security and stability. In 2013, the Obama administration’s decision to withhold the delivery of Apache helicopters that the Egyptian government had already paid for hindered Egypt’s ability to fight against transnational terrorist factions who flocked to Northern Sinai. The hold was eventually lifted in 2015, but it’s worth noting that these attempts to reduce military aid or postpone the delivery of fully-paid-for U.S. military equipment were perceived by the Egyptian public as acting against Egypt’s national security interests. This negatively influenced the Egyptian people’s perception of the United States, jeopardizing the two countries’ strategic partnership.
Future attempts to cut or withhold military aid to Egypt may push Egyptians to seek new arms suppliers. This can lead to further diversification away from U.S. arms and toward other countries such as France and Germany, or even Russia and China. Egypt has indeed purchased French Mistrals, German submarines, and sought Russian and Chinese military equipment. It’s important to consider the potential consequences of losing leverage with Cairo before making changes to the current U.S. military assistance or Foreign Military Sales deals.
In summary, it is advantageous for the United States to maintain its military aid to Egypt without implementing slight reductions that may not influence Egypt’s policies on homeland security or defense against foreign threats. These cuts may even increase the “rally around the flag” effect among Egyptians and strengthen their relationship with their government. The Biden administration recognizes this scenario, as demonstrated in its National Security Strategy, which considers the external threats perceived by the United States’ regional partners.