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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi speaks during a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Francois Hollande at the presidential palace of al- Orouba for the official visit of the French president, Cairo on April 17, 2016. Cairo, Egypt, April 17, 2016. Photo by Etienne Bouy/ABACAPRESS.COM
Order from Chaos

The needed reset for the US-Egypt relationship

Yesterday afternoon, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa about Egyptian politics and the U.S.-Egypt relationship. My full testimony is available here; below are some highlights. Video of the hearing, which also included Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Amy Hawthorne of the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute, is available here.

THE US-EGYPTIAN RELATIONSHIP IS UNBALANCED

In my years working on U.S.-Egyptian relations, I have never seen the relationship as unbalanced and ineffective for American interests as it is at this moment. Over the last decade and especially in the current administration, American policy toward Egypt has moved from a comprehensive mutual partnership into one almost exclusively defined by our military assistance and our military-to-military relationship.

Consider the trend in U.S. assistance to Egypt over the last three decades. In Fiscal Year 1990, the ratio of American military assistance to economic assistance provided to Egypt was just over 1-to-1. In Fiscal Year 2018, the ratio of military to economic aid was well over 4-to-1.

Dunne’s testimony described the myriad ways in which the Egyptian military has steadily taken over control of politics, economics, and the media. The trajectory of our support to Egypt appears to bolster and reward this military takeover of state and society. I don’t believe that this was the intention of American policy — but it is, unquestioningly, the result.

SISSI IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE PARTNER

Beginning with the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty negotiated at Camp David, the United States enjoyed a strong partnership with Egypt’s leaders. That partnership was rooted in shared strategic and security goals for the region, including Arab-Israeli peace, resisting Soviet influence in the region, preventing any single regional state from dominating the others, and combating Islamist terrorism.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is not inclined to or capable of that kind of partnership. His fixation on regime security makes him a stingy and unreliable partner in regional affairs, uninterested in cooperation to stabilize a region in turmoil. To the contrary, his coercive approaches both domestically and abroad are exacerbating instability and security problems, not just for the region but for Europe and the United States.

Sissi’s Egypt, rather than driving Arab policies like former president Hosni Mubarak did, follows the lead of his backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sissi, meanwhile, is bent on fighting a regional war for power and influence against his perceived adversaries: Islamist political movements, Qatar, and Turkey — and most of all, anyone inside Egypt who dares to dissent from Sissi’s views.

Sissi’s sponsorship of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has prolonged and exacerbated the Libyan civil war, giving greater space to terror groups like al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, displacing thousands of people and bolstering the numbers of migrants and refugees seeking to flee from Libya into Europe.

Much of Sissi’s counterinsurgency campaign in Sinai has involved scorched-earth tactics that included bulldozing villages and displacing thousands of residents, an approach one Israeli described to me as “making the sand jump.” More broadly, Sissi’s intense repression and the large numbers of political prisoners raise real concerns about whether the Egyptian government’s approach is cultivating extremism more than it is combating it.

Sissi’s Egypt maintains diplomatic relations and open communications with the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus as well as with Tehran. He has made major military purchases from Russia, maintains trade with North Korea, welcomes Chinese investment in Egypt, continues discrimination against the Coptic Christian community and detains American citizens and their family members. And, as my co-panelists have detailed, President Sissi has escalated his persecution of civil society and human rights activists.

STRICT AID CONDITIONALITY HAS SOME EFFECT

In the face of these concerns, Congress has placed increasingly strict conditions on a portion of U.S. military assistance to Cairo. This conditionality has had some impact in delivering Egyptian responses to specific U.S. concerns on human rights and security. I think even Trump administration officials would agree it’s been a useful tool.

These recent efforts show that focused, sustained pressure, with clear demands consistently communicated, can have some, limited impact on Egyptian actions. I agree with my colleagues that this conditionality should be renewed, and the national security waivers should be removed to ensure congressional will is enforced.

INVEST IN THE EGYPTIAN PEOPLE

Old, received wisdom about the value of the U.S.-Egyptian partnership needs to be reviewed and updated in light of the profound changes in Egypt and in the region. The United States can work constructively with Egypt’s government on mutual interests, in a focused and conditioned manner, while using economic and other civilian assistance to help the Egyptian people through a truly challenging period and to prepare for challenges already on their doorstep. For example, Egypt desperately needs a comprehensive strategy for water conservation, reclamation, and desalination — and the United States has expertise to offer.

But American officials must not be blind to the nature of this regime or this partnership. What’s needed is clarity of intentions, clear conditions for American support and assistance, and clear U.S. red lines that are enforced. Discarding illusions and wishful thinking can produce a limited partnership with some concrete and meaningful benefits.

Most of all, the United States must get off its current trajectory, whereby the uncritical embrace of the Trump administration combined with the overwhelming proportion of military assistance makes the United States increasingly appear to Egyptians as the bank-roller and backer of a military-backed autocrat who is relentlessly repressing and abusing his people. It is and will remain in American interests to see the people of Egypt realize their aspirations for security, dignity, and freedom; it is these aspirations in which we should invest.

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