The Right Next Step for the United States in Egypt
In the days since the United States announced a partial cutoff of military aid to Egypt based on human rights concerns, foreign policy experts and commentators have been asking what it all means. Is it a wrongheaded blunder? Too little, too late? Is the United States losing Egypt?
Out of the confusion, a new narrative has begun to take shape in the world of Washington think tanks and lobbying firms: The suspension of some military aid was a mistake, jeopardizing the U.S.-Egypt security relationship, poisoning relations with the Egyptian people, and opening the door to a catastrophic loss of U.S. influence in the country. Most important, according to this new narrative, the reduction in military aid will only serve the interest of Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and hamper progress on the military’s “roadmap” toward a democratic Egypt.
But this narrative is wrong.
Certainly the United States has made mistakes in its policy toward Egypt. Since the uprising of January 25, 2011, that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, American policy has been marked by vacillation, mixed signals, and refusal to strongly condemn increasing repression and human rights violations under Egyptian governments of various stripes. The United States has often backed down in the face of Egyptian provocation, as when it proved unwilling to suspend aid after the trial and conviction of 43 international NGO workers, including eight Americans (of whom I am one), on political charges related to their efforts to support democracy.
The Obama administration repeated its error after the July 3, 2013, coup that overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, refusing to call the coup a coup so as to avoid triggering a legally mandated suspension of aid. No wonder Egyptians of all political persuasions are enraged at the United States—some because they believe President Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and others because they believe he turned his back on a freely elected Islamist government and threw in his lot with the generals.
These errors should not obscure the role Egypt’s rulers themselves have played in harming their country’s relationship with the United States. First the military government that took over from Mubarak, then the Morsi government, and now the Egyptian military and the civilian government it backs have studiously ignored Washington’s pleas to respect human rights and to end the unjust case against the international pro-democracy NGOs.
Since Egypt’s latest interim government took over, as many as 3,000 protesters have died in confrontations with security forces, including the infamous killing of over a thousand Morsi supporters during raids on protest camps on August 14. Authorities have arrested thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, as well as most of its leadership, and intimidated or prosecuted real or imagined opponents across the political spectrum. Bloggers and activists face charges of insulting the president or the military; one hapless peasant was even arrested for naming his donkey “al-Sisi.” Nobel laureate and former presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei was forced to flee the country to avoid political prosecution. Egypt’s notorious Emergency Law has been reinstated, and the interim president is now considering a highly restrictive law that would inhibit most demonstrations. Poisonous and xenophobic invective directed at the United States has filled the state-controlled media. All the while, the generals have taken continued U.S. military assistance for granted.
It is clear that the Egyptian military is no true friend of democracy or human rights, or indeed of the United States. Trusting its good intentions would be folly. This is not a matter of choosing between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, which for its part failed spectacularly at both governance and respecting civil liberties. It is a matter of standing up for American principles and applying them to America’s own foreign policy. And it is no coincidence that doing so would also serve the United States’ long-term strategic interests.
Far from being a mistake, the suspension of military aid is an important step in the right direction. The United States has persuaded the Egyptian military that it can no longer take U.S. support for granted. The administration should follow up by forgoing 30-year-old platitudes about the value of the strategic relationship and thoroughly rethinking its policy. As a starting point, the United States must ask itself how unquestioning support for a military regime advances American interests in regional stability, especially in a part of the world where the tide of change is eroding—or in some cases sweeping away—autocratic political norms. Additional pressure will be needed to persuade Egypt’s military to reverse its repressive steps, which do more to undermine than to maintain stability. A U.S. policy approach that effectively nudges Egypt toward providing space for an inclusive political process is critical to building a stable and democratic order.
Photo Credit: Ramy Raoof
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.