Obama administration to Sissi: Egypt-bound weapons released with caveat

On Tuesday, President Obama called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and conveyed news of long-brewing decisions in the Obama administration regarding U.S. military aid to Egypt – including the release of some long-withheld arms that Egypt desperately wants. The announcement, like most U.S. policy pronouncements on Egypt in recent years, is likely to satisfy nobody— and, also like other such pronouncements, it does not suggest that the administration has a coherent approach to this geostrategic country. For close observers of the role of military aid in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, however, the decision is more significant than it seems— not an unvarnished “win” for Sissi, but one that presents him an opportunity.

Most of the U.S. and regional coverage of the president’s announcement focused on the headline release of specific military items and equipment withheld since October 2013, notably Harpoon missiles, F-16 aircraft and M1A1 Abrams tank kits. The Obama administration will continue to request $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, keeping the country as Washington’s second-highest military aid recipient after Israel, and maintaining Egypt’s preeminent position in the pantheon of U.S. military clients. Those actions have long been major demands of Egypt and its backers.

Meanwhile, the administration will end the preferential practice of “cash-flow financing,” whereby Egypt is allowed to sign contracts for military equipment on credit, obligating future military aid appropriations for years to come. Moreover, the administration will judge new Egyptian military purchases against four goals: counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security. This suggests, but does not require, that Egypt will no longer be able to use its military aid from the United States to buy items like passenger aircraft for its senior officers and perhaps not major weapons systems that cannot be tied to the four goals. The change gives the U.S. government greater ability to shape the delivery of aid to advance specific policy goals with Cairo down the road.

Finally, the Obama administration will use its national security waiver authority in the latest appropriations law to continue the flow of military aid to Egypt, admitting thereby that it cannot certify Egypt as having achieved democracy milestones specified in legislation for the release of aid. Using the waiver requires the administration to submit a report to Congress on why it cannot certify Egypt’s democratic progress— a report that must inevitably include a recitation of Egypt’s repression and backsliding on basic rights. It seems that the report will be made public.

What this policy announcement really represents, however, is the drawn out conclusion to a sorry saga that began with the July 2013 ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military. At the time, the Obama administration refused to label this a military coup, primarily to avoid its legal obligation to suspend military aid to countries in which constitutional government is overrun by the armed forces. However, it faced increasing pressure to respond to the bloody crackdown, and the administration announced in October 2013 that it would hold back some aid-funded military equipment until the Egyptian government demonstrated credible progress toward democratic governance. Now, despite the lack of progress— indeed, despite backsliding— the administration is releasing the weapons anyway.

But the announcement does not represent a simple return to business as usual. The end of cash-flow financing makes it easier for the U.S. government to reduce or restructure military aid programs with Egypt in the future. Egypt loses a special privilege in the use of U.S. aid money that only it and Israel had enjoyed, while Washington gains new flexibility that will make military aid less of a blank check for Cairo. The end of cash-flow financing and the enunciation of specific goals for the aid will make it harder for Egypt to buy big, expensive weapons systems – these are prestige items for Egyptian military officers to acquire and manage, but are not very useful for the types of security threats Egypt faces today from cross-border incursions, smuggling, terrorism and insurgency. The changes mean that, for the first time, Washington’s military aid to Cairo will be structured as something of intrinsic value in advancing specific shared security interests, rather than as an expensive-but-vague symbol of a committed partnership. Cash-flow financing was a highly valued perquisite for the Egyptian military and they are undoubtedly furious at its loss.

In Washington, Egypt’s cash-flow financing had lost support from both parties and is not likely to be reinstated no matter who moves into the White House in 2017. Regardless of the strategic logic for military aid, Egypt’s consistent attitude of entitlement to U.S. taxpayer money has rankled on Capitol Hill for years and especially since 2011. After the Egyptian government raided U.S. NGO offices in Egypt in December 2011 and prosecuted their employees, members of Congress were astounded to discover that they could not cut off aid money, because the United States was obligated to billions of dollars in defense contracts for Egypt that extended for years into the future. Ending cash-flow financing helps the United States avoid over-commitment on aid to an Egypt whose stability and trajectory remain deeply uncertain. It is hard to see why any future U.S. president would want to reduce his or her own flexibility by reversing course.

Despite the changes to the aid program, though, the resumption of aid is a visible, miserable climbdown from the ground Obama staked out in October 2013. Sissi, who came to power in a coup and won a deeply flawed election, hasn’t managed even a fig leaf of democratic progress that could have justified the weapons release. To the contrary: Egypt’s government has scaled up investigations, travel bans and prosecutions of political opponents; restricted public protests and other basic rights; issued mass death sentences and other inexplicable and arbitrary judicial rulings; and botched preparations for parliamentary elections, forcing their delay and sidelining political parties while Sissi continues to rule by decree. At the same time, the state-run media in Egypt continue vicious and conspiratorial anti-American campaigns, the government denies entry to American researchers, and American citizens, along with many Egyptian NGO workers and activists, are still mired in groundless criminal cases. Sissi has refused to use his pardon power or any other authority, formal or informal, to address these American concerns.

So why did Obama back down? Because the withheld weapons had become a huge stumbling block in U.S.-Egyptian relations. Just as the military aid has long symbolized a committed U.S.-Egyptian partnership, the withheld items came to symbolize to Egyptian interlocutors a lack of commitment on the part of the United States to sustaining the relationship. And thus, the withholding became a grievance far greater than the specifics would indicate. For the last several years, Egypt has been too overcome by internal challenges to play the regional diplomatic and security role that successive U.S. governments have valued. However, as Egypt responded to its Gulf allies in recent months by stepping up its own regional activism and as the United States shifted back toward active engagement in the Middle East to combat the Islamic State, effective U.S. cooperation with Egypt became more urgent – and the withheld weapons became too much of an obstacle.

It didn’t have to come to this. Had the United States, back in July 2013, simply recognized Sissi’s military takeover for what it was – a coup – and suspended aid as required under the terms of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, it would have angered the Egyptian military a great deal. But Obama also would have been able to resume full assistance much sooner, after Sissi’s election to the presidency in May 2014. Both sides would have understood the aid suspension as a temporary and specific measure required by preexisting U.S. law and would long since have moved on. Instead, Obama’s tortured and belated decision to withhold these weapons in an ad hoc, case-specific punishment for an unacknowledged coup felt much more personal – and it provoked a broader crisis in ties without bringing any progress, or even any greater leverage, on democracy concerns. Invoking the coup provision would have been better for U.S. policy credibility, for its global commitment to democracy and for U.S.-Egyptian relations than this extended melodrama.

There may be a silver lining to this regrettable cloud, but it’s up to the government of Egypt to find it. The president of the United States has just paid a real price – in policy credibility, in prestige and in legacy – to address Cairo’s greatest grievance against the United States and put the U.S.-Egyptian relationship back on track. The price Obama has paid represents his personal investment in the relationship and his demonstration of commitment to preserving it. Sissi’s government should feel reassured by this significant step, but the work is not yet done. To achieve a real reset in U.S.-Egyptian relations, Sissi must now reciprocate with equally meaningful and concrete steps of his own – demonstrating that he, too, is willing to understand his partner’s concerns, overcome past grievances and pay a price to demonstrate his commitment to the relationship.

Ever since the 2011 revolution, but particularly after the July 2013 coup and the bloody events that followed, Washington’s greatest concern in its relationship with Cairo has been Egypt’s internal stability and worry that the ongoing repression is making Egypt’s domestic security, economic and political situation worse instead of better. A stable Egypt is traditionally a cornerstone of U.S. regional policy, but a shaky Egypt is a potential disaster. The Egyptian fixation on state control and the hostility to Washington have led to a host of problems that have made U.S. government agencies, companies and civic groups very shy to engage in ways that could demonstrate U.S. support for Egypt and also help bolster Egyptian stability. Nothing has encapsulated and symbolized this American concern more than the relentless Egyptian government persecution of NGOs and NGO workers, including American citizens and dozens of their Egyptian partners and colleagues. This campaign – of intimidation by security services, leaked allegations in the media, smear tactics, raids and criminal charges – has continued under three successive Egyptian governments. Like the withheld weapons, the campaign against U.S.-Egyptian civil society engagement has become an outsized obstacle to restoring normal bilateral relations.

To be a meaningful contribution to repairing relations, then, Sissi’s reciprocal step must address this American concern for Egyptian stability, demonstrate his readiness to stand up publicly for a U.S.-Egyptian partnership and facilitate the reestablishment of more multifaceted, bilateral ties beyond the military. If Sissi wants to show Obama that he is committed to a new page in U.S.-Egyptian ties, then he should shut down the investigations of NGOs, issue a full and unconditional pardon to those convicted in the case that launched in December 2011 and end the persecution of civil society activists. Closing this case and ending the investigation and prosecution of NGOs would remove a bitter irritant from the relationship, provide a concrete (if limited) amelioration of a glaring human rights problem and show Sissi’s readiness to push back against anti-American sentiment in Egypt and welcome broader ties with Washington. Closing the NGO case would require Sissi to exercise his personal authority, reverse several years of policy and confront contrary opinion. It would be a significant move by a leader confident in his desire to pursue a new era in U.S-Egyptian relations.

If Sissi cannot reciprocate Obama’s bold and costly gesture with one of his own, then this moment of opportunity will be lost. What’s worse, a failure to respond in kind will suggest that this Egyptian government is not actually interested in rebuilding a relationship with Washington, but just in it for what it can get.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.