Congress Hearing on Egypt’s Security, Rights and Reform
Congress Hearing on Egypt’s Security, Rights and Reform – US Foreign Affairs Committee –US House Hearing titled: “Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform”
On July 24 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss human rights abuses in Egypt, titled: “Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform” . The hearing, which featured the testimony of several experts including, Mr. Samuel Tadros, Senior Fellow of Center for Religious Freedom, The Hudson Institute, focused on the security situation and the abuse of human rights under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Introducing a hearing on Egypt’s Security, Rights and Reform at the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen said: “While the United States has focused much of its attention on Syria and Iran, developments in Egypt have gone largely under the radar. Despite a weakened economy, difficulty in implementing reforms and an inability to secure a decisive victory against terror groups in the Sinai, Sisi won his bid for re-election earlier this year. Since then, we have seen little indication that Egypt will be able to stabilize its economy, secure its borders, improve its human rights record, or make the reforms necessary to move forward. This hearing will allow the subcommittee to refocus our attention to a key U.S. partner in the region, and assess ways in which we can bolster our cooperation with Egypt to ensure it takes meaningful steps forward in a way that benefits Egypt as well as our own national security interests.”
Witnesses and their written testimonies
1- Mr. Samuel Tadros – Senior Fellow – Center for Religious Freedom – The Hudson Institute
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa – Egypt: Security, Human Rights and Reform July 24, 2018
Madame Chair, Ranking Member Deutch, distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify at this hearing on “Egypt: Security, Human Rights and Reform.”
The U.S. Egyptian Alliance
For the previous four decades, the U.S-Egypt alliance has been a cornerstone of the American order in the Middle East. The largest country in the Middle East in terms of population, with a quarter of the Arabic speaking peoples living within its borders, and for a long time the region’s political and cultural capital, Cairo had often set the pace for the whole region. After two decades of tensions and conflict between both countries, Secretary Kissinger and President Sadat found an opening in the aftermath of the 1973 war to forge a new basis for the American-Egyptian relationship. Key American Cold war strategic objectives were achieved as President Sadat agreed, in return for the complete return of Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty not only to seek a lasting peace between his country and Israel, but also to detach Egypt from the Soviet orbit and put it formally in the U.S. camp. In return for U.S. financial, military and developmental assistance, Egypt would become a U.S. ally and successive U.S. administrations hoped that the country would lead the region away from the path of destruction and war introducing a new era of peace and cooperation.
Yet despite the attainment of key U.S. strategic objectives during the Cold war through the American-Egyptian alliance: from diminishing the Soviet Union’s role in the Middle East, Egypt’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, and a variety of security services it has provided the United States from participation in the Gulf War, cooperation in the war on terror and providing the United States with access to the Suez Canal and overflight rights through its airspace, the relationship between the two countries has never been a smooth one. Egypt was always a problematic ally.
The historical record is long: President Mubarak lying during the Achille Lauro incident in 1985 and Egypt’s attempt to smuggle missile components from the United States for its secret missile program during President Reagan’s tenure; Egypt’s flamboyant Foreign Minister, Amre Moussa, leading the charge against economic cooperation with Israel across the region for fear of Israeli economic dominance, and President Mubarak encouraging Yasser Arafat not to compromise during the Camp David Summit, during President Clinton’s tenure; or Mubarak’s refusal to reform that shaped his uneasy relationship with President George W. Bush. Throughout those three decades there were deep U.S. Egyptian disagreements over a variety of issues ranging from the peace process, U.S. policies in the region, democracy, and human rights. Moreover, despite continued U.S. economic and military assistance to Egypt, the Egyptian press continued to traffic in anti-American and anti-Semitic tirades.
And yet, these previous disagreements and frustrations pale in comparison with the tension, disappointment and mistrust that has shaped the previous decade in U.S. Egyptian relations. President Obama’s decision to call for Mubarak to step down, the administration’s pressure on the military leadership to hold elections swiftly, the decision to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood without pressuring it for concessions, continued U.S. assistance to human rights organizations in Egypt, the perceived closeness between the administration and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, U.S. condemnation of the military coup, and threats to cut U.S. military aid, led to growing antagonism in Cairo. In turn Egypt has shown an unwillingness to cooperate on regional security challenges such as joining the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, pursued an independent policy in Libya, deepened its military and economic ties to the Russian Federation, pursued a scorched earth strategy to wipe out the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai, cracked down on all forms of dissent in the country stifling civil society and any independent media, engaged in egregious human rights abuses, continued to attempt to undercut U.S. resolutions in the United Nations, and most importantly engaged in an unprecedented wave of anti-American propaganda and conspiracy theories at home.
The American-Egyptian alliance is crumbling. As the Center for American Progress’ Daniel Benaim eloquently put it: the U.S.-Egypt relationship “has been buffeted by upheaval, mired in mutual mistrust, and saddled with unmet expectations.” For some in Washington, while unfortunate, an end to the alliance is inevitable. Cold war rationale should no longer be a basis for a continued alliance with a problematic partner, and the two countries do not see eye to eye on many important issues. Moreover, Egypt’s regional importance has vastly diminished. The Egypt of today is not the one with which Secretary Kissinger built a lasting partnership. Egypt has continued to decline on all levels, economically, culturally, and politically. Arab eyes and ears are no longer set on Cairo. Egypt is no longer the key player in the Middle East having been replaced by Iran and Turkey. Even among Arabic speaking countries, its historical role has been replaced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. That regional decline did not start with President Mubarak but in fact was a reflection of its 1967 defeat following which Egypt accepted its diminished regional role and surrendered to Saudi Arabia in the Khartoum Summit in 1967.
As an external power, Egypt is a shadow of its former self, and there are well- founded doubts about its capacity to play a leading and constructive role even if it wanted to. Instead, Egypt itself has increasingly become a locus of the region’s unfolding strategic competition and the unprecedented political and ideological crisis of the state-based order. Instead of being a regional player leading the region to peace, Egypt has now become a playing field where a variety of international, regional and local forces compete in an all-out war to shape the country’s future trajectory. Egypt is no longer a contestant but instead is itself contested.
The regional decline is a reflection of deeper ills within Egypt itself. The inability of the country’s leadership to reform the economy through market-oriented policies, combatting corruption, and addressing the dysfunctional bureaucracy has worsened the lives of millions of Egyptians. The slow collapse of state institutions has continued, undermining people’s confidence in these institutions. The failure to develop a sustainable governance compact and failure to address its citizens’ grievances through democratic means has eroded the country’s social compact.
Decades of discrimination against the country’s native Christian population has torn apart the fabric of the Egyptian nation. And the government’s failure to reform its internal security forces and the military, has diminished Egypt’s ability to confront terrorist threats.
Despite these changes, U.S. policy has not adjusted to the changing conditions. The United States continues to base its policies on an Egypt that no longer exists. This has to change. As Egypt continues to face severe challenges on various security, economic, and political fronts, the United States needs to adjust its policies towards the country to face those challenges. Renewing a strong American Egyptian alliance that can deal with the challenges of the 21st Century—not only the ongoing implosion of order in the Middle East, but the worsening crisis in Egypt itself, is the key challenge today.
U.S. interests in Egypt cannot be limited to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, which Egypt’s national interest itself dictates its continuation, securing free passage through the Suez Canal and flights for U.S. military aircraft in its skies. Instead U.S. strategy should be adjusted to help Egypt face its current challenges and overcome them. A state collapse in Egypt would pose a grave threat to the United States-led order in the Middle East, open the doors for an Islamic State emirate in the country, threaten Israel’s security, and likely result in an unprecedented wave of immigrants knocking on Europe’s doors. Averting such a scenario should be the priority of U.S. policy towards Egypt.
The case for continued American engagement with Egypt and investment in a robust U.S.-Egyptian alliance remains, although it must not be based on outdated understandings. Despite Egypt’s declining regional position and influence, the country still matters. The regional order of nation-states is faltering, the result of decades of neglect, a deepening crisis of governance, an unprecedented ideological convulsion, and intensifying strategic-sectarian rivalries. Egypt, where the Middle East’s first nation-state model emerged a century ago, will be key if the Middle Eastern order of nation-states is to survive and rejuvenate itself in the twenty-first century. In the absence of a serious U.S. strategy for Egypt, the two countries will continue to drift apart, and Egypt’s decline will likely accelerate, leaving the nation more vulnerable to the forces of regional disorder and chaos.
Egypt’s Challenges: Terrorism in Sinai
Egypt is today in its sixth year of war against terrorism in Sinai. Despite continued military campaigns against the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Peninsula, and deepening security cooperation with Israel which has provided important intelligence, Egypt has failed to end the terrorist threat. The Islamic State in Sinai has carried spectacular attacks both in Sinai where it has continued to target security and military positions and personal, and in mainland Egypt where it has carried out numerous attacks on military positions and bombings and shootings of Coptic Christians that have left over a hundred dead.
Despite the continued failure to end the terrorist threat, there have been increasingly positive signs in the past few months. The latest military operation launched in February following the massacre of more than three hundred worshipers at a local mosque, has managed to significantly disrupt IS communications and diminish the group’s ability to carry out large scale attacks. During the past few months, despite a serious attempt at the lives of the Defense and Interior ministers, there has been a noticeable drop in daily attacks. Moreover, the Islamic State’s increasing adoption of indiscriminate targeting of civilians has alienated the local population. Despite these successes, the potential for a regrouping by the Islamic State remains high. The group has managed to outlive previous military campaigns and still has a solid number of dedicated fighters and sophisticated weaponry.
The continued civil war in Libya remains a serious security threat to Egypt. Significant attacks in Egypt’s Western Desert bordering Libya by both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Murabitun, have left over one hundred security personal dead. Libya serves as both a launching site for attacks, a training ground for terrorists and a source of weapons. The challenge from Libya is especially critical given the military’s unfamiliarity with the terrain and the absence of a capable partner on the other side of the border similar to the role Israel plays in aiding Egypt’s operations in Sinai.
Egypt has pursued a minimalist policy in Libya. While it has continued to support General Haftar, Egypt’s strategy is not driven by a desire to stabilize Libya. The country’s leadership recognizes the inability of Egypt to achieve such a result and continues to hope for a Western led effort to stabilize its neighbor. Instead the best Egypt can hope for is for the Libyan menace to be played away from the Egyptian borders. As long as General Haftar controls the border areas and thus stops attacks on Egypt, the Egyptian regime is content with the current situation in its neighboring country.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, the Egyptian regime has been engaged in a continued battle with the group.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it maintains a non-violent approach, it is undisputed today that a significant portion of the movement has turned to violence with the early blessing of some of the Brotherhood’s leadership. What began as organized protection of Brotherhood demonstrators in late 2013 has morphed into aggressive violence directed at the state. This radicalization process has been abetted by the new amalgam of various Islamist organizations and tendencies that formed in reaction to the 2013 massacre at Rab’a and the Brotherhood’s own ideological weakness, which permitted other Islamists to fill the vacuum of ideas with revolutionary Salafist ones.
The first wave of violence by Muslim Brotherhood members was in the form of both widespread violence across the country in August 2013 that targeted Churches and police stations and through organized units that were created to protect Brotherhood demonstrations and which quickly began to engage in low level violence. By the early months of 2014, these actions quickly fizzled as Muslim Brotherhood popular mobilization and demonstrations lost steam.
By September 2014, the second wave of violence began with the emergence of two groups named Popular Resistance and Revolutionary Punishment. These groups were formed from Muslim Brotherhood members and organized, financed and supported by some elements within the group’s leadership especially former Guidance Bureau member Mohamed Kamal, who was killed in October 2016 by security forces. During the second wave, these groups were engaged in violence both in the form of attacks on the country’s infrastructure especially the electricity grid, and attacks on multinational companies operating in Egypt, as well as targeted attacks against security officials believed to have played a role in the Rab’a massacre. The most successful operation was the assassination of Hesham Barakat, Egypt’s Prosecutor General in June 2015 by a group of former Muslim Brotherhood members. By early 2016 the second wave of violence lost steam following a heavy crackdown by security forces that proved successful in dismantling their cells.
The third wave of violence began in July 2016 with the announcement of the establishment of Hasm followed a month later by Liwa Al Thawra. These two groups have carried more sophisticated attacks than their predecessors including attacks on police checkpoints and assassinations of Judges and officers. The two groups have been designated as terrorist groups by the United States in January 2018. In recent months, successful security operations have dismantled their cells leading to decreased attacks.
As a result of the regime’s crackdown, internal fights over strategy, and the Brotherhood’s failure to develop a coherent strategy to defeat the regime, the
Muslim Brotherhood has split into competing factions. One of these factions has embraced violence both on political grounds as well as through developing a theological grounding for violence. The Muslim Brotherhood maintains a number of TV channels in Turkey that have engaged in open calls for violence and justification for these attacks as well as continued incitement against the regime and Coptic Christians.
The Political Landscape
During the past five years, Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented attack on free expression and civil society. The regime’s crackdown was not limited to Islamists but has targeted activists and politicians from all backgrounds and ideologies. The aim of the crackdown is the complete closing of public space in the country. The regime’s actions have been driven by a firm belief that Egypt is facing a conspiracy that aims to destabilize the country through internal forces including civil society groups and the media. The regime believes that President Mubarak’s greatest mistake has been his surrender to American pressure to open the country in his last decade of rule.
As such the regime has sought and succeeded in taking control of the media and closing all outlets for free expression and opposition. The regime has also removed legal and procedural constraints on security agencies, giving them virtually free rein to protect the country from internal threats as they see fit. This new approach reverses policies that Presidents Sadat and Mubarak had both promulgated. While neither were democrats, both understood the need to maintain a half-open society to alleviate pressure on the regime, while also upholding clear redlines and a legal framework for state oppression. The result has been flagrant human rights abuses and growing public fear.
The recent Presidential elections were the culmination of these efforts. The Egyptian regime has barred any significant candidate from competing in these elections against President Sisi and has arrested or intimidated those who dared challenge him. The Egyptian parliament, while including a small number of independent members has become a rubberstamp body with little room for serious debate of legislation. Local elections have in turn been continuously delayed.
In the absence of any organized political body to express citizen concerns in the country, President Sisi has turned to the military as the base of his regime. The military today enjoys unrivaled and virtually uncontested power. Yet the past four years have also brought numerous challenges and placed novel demands on an institution that is not equipped to govern a country of ninety-four million. The military’s heavy involvement in political and economic affairs has compromised its reputation as an impartial actor defending the nation’s interests.
Despite prioritizing the rebuilding of state institutions, the decay of state institutions continues apace, leaving the country’s leaders with few mechanisms to confront growing challenges, including a rolling economic and sectarian crisis. On its current path, Egypt, a country of ninety-four million, is at growing risk of becoming a failed state.
The Sectarian Crisis
Egypt is a torn country – its social fabric in tatters. There is no reason to think of Egypt today as above the disarray and state collapse that we have witnessed elsewhere all across the region. Such assumptions have long held sway as Egypt’s image of a modern country above the sectarian and ethnic divides of its surroundings have been taken for granted. In reality, Egyptian nationalism was never as solid as imagined, its social fabric never as strong as portrayed, and its divides much deeper than acknowledged. At every level, Egypt is today a torn country; between the Brotherhood and its enemies, between Islamists and non- Islamists, and between Copts and Muslims. No resolution appears in sight for the divisions.
Persecution and discrimination against the country’s native Christian population, Copts, continues to be one of the most important challenges facing the country. While President Sisi has publicly spoken about viewing all Egyptians as equal, and took some public gestures towards Copts, discriminatory policies remain in place. A long-promised Church building law was passed in December 2016, albeit with significant restrictions on church construction. Furthermore, the government committee tasked with legalizing pre-existing churches that lack government recognition has been extremely slow in the process recognizing less than five percent of the 3730 applications submitted to them. Furthermore, Christians continue to be systematically excluded from important government positions. The current Egyptian government has only one Christian minister, while there are no Copts serving as provincial governors. Similar discrimination is practiced among university presidents, school deans, the military, judiciary, the foreign service with Christians completely excluded from serving in the country’s state security and intelligence services. The Egyptian government also continues to uphold discriminatory regulations such as blasphemy laws, which are almost exclusively used to target Copts and other religious minorities; inheritance laws, which force Copts to divide inheritance according to sharia; and prohibiting adoption.
Most significantly, the Egyptian government has failed to stop attacks on Copts and has repeatedly refused to punish the attackers. In the past five years there have been over five hundred sectarian attacks on Copts. Most of these attacks are in the form of mob attacks in villages driven by attempts to deny Copts from building a Church or as punishment for perceived insults by the community. In every single one of those attacks the government has forced both communities to attend reconciliation sessions, which force majoritarian demands on the Copts without holding the attackers accountable. This has created a culture of impunity and encouragement that has led to a dramatic increase in the number of attacks on Copts in recent years.
No issue occupies Egypt today more than the Ethiopian question. Ethiopia, long viewed from Cairo as a backward country is modernizing and, more importantly, is witnessing a demographic explosion, having surpassed Egypt in population. With the demographic pressure comes the need for water and electricity, both tied to the river. The agreement governing the river had been arranged by the British, and they favored Egypt for its cotton industry supplying the mills of Lancashire.
Ethiopia, however, will no longer accept the injustice.
The dam being built in Ethiopia presents a threat to Egypt’s national interest and survival, and repeated attempts to reach an accommodation between both countries have continued to falter. While the dam has not been completed yet, the Egyptian government has already taken steps to adjust to the possibility of diminished water resources as it prepares for alternatives. While a military conflict between both countries is not inevitable, it remains possible.
The Egyptian economy faces a multitude of structural problems, including an unsustainable system of subsidies inherited from the Nasser era, which successive governments have failed to control; a large and expanding bureaucracy of seven million whose salaries are a huge and unsustainable burden on a state budget already stretched thin; the overall low productivity of workers, a consequence of poor education and lack of serious technical training; an over-dependence on volatile sources of revenue such as the Suez Canal, tourism, and remittances by Egyptians abroad; a massive informal economy that the government fails to regulate and also fails to derive tax revenues from; an unwelcoming business and legal environment that discourages investment; and a weak banking system with limited penetration and minimal financial capacity to empower ordinary people and start-ups, aside from loans to big businesses and government bonds.
Egypt’s overall economic trajectory has further worsened because of non- economic factors in the past few years. The deteriorating security situation and a legal framework that allows courts to cancel economic decisions have both discouraged economic reform and investment. Further, the tourism sector has failed to rebound since 2011, while the downing of a Russian airplane and a botched military operation in Sinai that killed Mexican tourists have also hurt the industry.
While the Egyptian government had taken in its first years some steps to adjust the budget imbalance through targeting the fuel subsidies, it has for a long time ignored the need for a coherent economic strategy and refused to allow the free floating of the Egyptian pound, wasting the country’s foreign currency reserves.
More drastically the government has been engaged in mega projects such as the New Suez Canal, a 1.5-millionacre reclamation project that has little chance of becoming viable, and an equally far-fetched new capital complex, both of which have cost the country billions of badly needed dollars.
In November 2016, the government was forced by its deep economic troubles and pressure from the International Monetary Fund to devalue the Egyptian currency. Despite massive inflation that have eroded the middle class’ savings, the move has significantly improved Egypt’s economic condition. Further increases in the prices of fuel, electricity and water have further helped the government in stabilizing the economy and avoiding worse scenarios. Despite these welcome steps, Egypt remains dependent on cash infusions from foreign powers. With a population of ninety-four million, Egypt is today too big to save with foreign aid alone. A serious plan to address the country’s structural economic problems and stimulate growth is necessary.
Recommendations for U.S. Policy
Despite deep disagreements between both countries, Egypt cannot be simply ignored by the United States. Abandonment is not a strategy nor will imaginary solutions of cutting U.S. aid result in Egypt’s transformation into a liberal democracy. Instead the United States needs sustained engagement with Egyptian officials if the alliance is to be salvaged.
Any new American effort to restore the alliance requires clarity about Egypt’s rapidly deteriorating conditions and help for the country to deal with it. As such, a new U.S. strategy towards Egypt is required that is based on the Egypt of reality and not of imagination and that focuses on the country’s internal challenges and not on Egypt’s regional role.
The U.S. should insist that for a healthy bilateral relationship, President Sisi must publicly repudiate the anti-American conspiracy theories rampant in the country. It is important for Cairo to make the case that the alliance with the United States is important to the Egyptian people and to repudiate conspiracy theories—especially those propagated by the Sisi regime itself—that claim there is American ill will toward Egypt.
The U.S. should penalize Egyptians who deliberately create and propagate anti- American conspiracy theories. For example, Washington could make perpetrators ineligible to participate in American-Egyptian exchange programs, receive funding from the U.S. government, or receive visas to visit the U.S.
One core focus of U.S. diplomacy in Egypt needs to be contesting the spread of anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories that have undermined political support in Egypt for the alliance. U.S. public diplomacy programs should also make debunking false information a top priority by reaching out directly to the Egyptian people through social media or short online videos and through the U.S. media in Arabic. The deepening mistrust between Cairo and Washington presents a major obstacle to any real cooperation. The weakness of the American-Egyptian alliance largely stems from Washington’s failure to cultivate a dependable constituency in Egypt with shared interests and principles. This may be the biggest failure of U.S. diplomacy in Egypt.
The ongoing conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over water supplies, provides the United States with an opportunity at mediation. Success in avoiding military conflict between the two countries and in reaching an agreement acceptable to both sides can play an important role in strengthening the U.S. Egyptian alliance and winning the hearts and minds of Egyptians.
The U.S. needs to rethink and expand its longstanding educational mission in Egypt to address the country’s educational deficit and decaying state institutions. In addition to working with Egyptian partners to expand opportunities in each governorate, the U.S. should support Egyptian efforts to reform the educational curriculum through a cross-disciplinary approach that instills civic republican
principles. This is essential for winning the struggle of ideas with Islamism, establishing civic peace, and fostering progress.
To help Egypt create a civil economy, the United States should expand its economic mission to engage a wider spectrum of businesses and sectors, including small business associations and new organizations focusing on encouraging entrepreneurship.
The United States should devote special attention to bureaucratic reforms and to expanding the banking system, which has an extremely low participation rate.
These are major hurdles for small businesses and for developing entrepreneurship. In its economic and development aid to Egypt, the United States should develop a local approach that rewards governorates and municipalities based on metrics related to good governance and equal opportunities for all citizens.
American military aid to Egypt should focus on improving Egypt’s capacity to conduct complex political-military operations at home and along its periphery. In addition, the United States should reexamine its military education and exchange programs with Egyptian officers. While some military training initiatives target lower-ranking officers, the important and coveted strategic studies programs engage only top commanders. Expanding programs for the lower ranks on counterinsurgency, civilian security, and intelligence practices based on rule-of- law principles should be a top priority.
The United States should examine organizational and economic ties between designated terrorist groups Hasm and Liwa Al Thawra and the Muslim Brotherhood. Leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood with ties to these groups should be designated as terrorists.
The United States should encourage the government of Turkey to examine the the content of Muslim Brotherhood TV channels engaged in incitement and support for terrorist attacks in Egypt. It should further encourage the government of Turkey to examine ties between individuals residing in Turkey and terrorist activities in Egypt.
The United States needs to engage the Egyptian diaspora in the United States and in other Western countries as part of its efforts to help Egypt. Working with the diaspora, the United States can develop numerous educational, economic, and developmental programs to implement in Egypt. The model of private-public partnership should be utilized in creating educational initiatives and entrepreneurship opportunities in Egypt. The Egyptian diaspora in the West has developed civic values, including hard work and personal social responsibility, and avenues can and should be opened for these experiences and values to be transferred back to Egypt. Just as the United States invites thousands of Egyptians to come to America on exchange programs, it should conduct reverse programs through which Egyptian-Americans bring their experiences back home.
Thank you again for holding and chairing this hearing and I look forwards to your questions.
2- Michele Dunne: Ph.D. – Director and Senior Fellow of Middle East Program of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
EGYPT: SECURITY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND REFORM
Testimony before U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa – July 24, 2018
Chairman Ros-Lehtinen, ranking member Deutch, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify. While Egypt is not in the headlines these days, there are important and worrying developments in security, economy, foreign policy, human rights, and politics—all of which have implications for the country’s stability. In my testimony, I will focus on domestic politics.
With the beginning of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s second term, Egypt is undergoing a deepening of authoritarianism verging on totalitarianism. As you are aware, Egypt’s rocky attempt at a democratic transition began in early 2011 and ended with a military coup in July 2013. During the first half of 2018, President Sisi eliminated, through imprisonment or intimidation, five presidential challengers (four of them his supporters previously) and was re-elected on March 29. Three of the would-be candidates were from the military. One is in prison, one under house arrest, and the third, former Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan, suffered a stroke in prison and is now in critical condition.
Anan’s imprisonment was part of a new wave of repression against those who have criticized Sisi. Others arrested during the presidential race or shortly afterward included Strong Egypt Party founder Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was accused of terrorism after criticizing Sisi on satellite television and is now suffering dire health consequences due to prolonged solitary confinement under harsh conditions. The campaign has also extended to many young liberals including blogger Wael Abbas, youth activist Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, and human rights defender Amal Fathy. They have joined tens of thousands of other political prisoners, many detained for months or years without charge, or convicted in mass trials.
Recent efforts to eliminate potential rivals and silence independent voices come amid growing signs that Sisi might try to stay in office beyond the end of his second term in 2022. When the Egyptian constitution was rewritten after the 2013 coup, the drafters were still hoping to preserve some gains of the 2011 revolution including constraints on presidential power. The 2014 constitution stipulated that the president is limited to two four-year terms (unlike former President Hosni Mubarak, who served for 30 years). All amendments to the constitution must be approved by a popular referendum as well as parliament, but the drafters added a special provision that articles relating to the re-election of the president may not be amended.
The drafters of the 2014 constitution had reason to worry. During his first term Sisi promised that he would respect the constitution and leave office after a maximum of eight years, but he did not repeat that pledge during his recent campaign for re-election and his supporters have suggested publicly and in parliament that he should stay longer. Sources within the Egyptian parliament now say that there is a process underway to introduce amendments that would remove the provision saying that articles relating to the re-election of the president may not be amended, extend the presidential term from four to six years, and remove term limits, among other changes.
Now Sisi appears to be working on removing any opposition. Independent political parties formed since the 2011 revolution have been systematically undermined by security agencies, and there is now pressure on the 20 or so parties represented in parliament to coalesce into just two or three, all supporting Sisi.
There are also efforts to quell any opposition within the regime. Sisi has replaced many senior security officials—the ministers of defense and interior, army chief of staff, and director of intelligence—in recent months. The parliament also passed on July 16 a law that would grant designated senior military officers lifelong immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in the years following the 2013 coup. The law gives the president the right to designate the officers enjoying such immunity, a highly effective tool to use in managing any dissent within the military.
Why should the United States, a long-term ally of Egypt that has given more than $78 billion in assistance, care if Sisi paves the way to remaining president for life? Because if he succeeds, at best it will bring back the stagnation, corruption, and lack of responsiveness to citizens that led to the revolt against Mubarak—but with much more brutal repression. That is a recipe for trouble in this most populous country of the Middle East and neighbor to Israel, which is already fighting a terrorist insurgency in Sinai. And if Sisi tries to secure a lock on the presidency and fails, then the country— lacking any outlets for peaceful expression of opposition in politics, media, or civil society—might soon be headed for violent unrest. Far better for Sisi to allow the re-emergence of free politics and to leave office on time.
There is not much the United States can or should do directly about the internal political situation in Egypt. What the U.S. government, and particularly the Congress, can do is scrutinize engagement with and assistance to Egypt in order to ensure that they promote stability for the nation rather than one- man rule.
My specific recommendations include:
– Keep conditionality: it’s working. The U.S. administration has become bolder over the past year in using the conditions Congress has legislated to send a clear message: security assistance will be withheld unless the Egyptian government addresses longstanding U.S. concerns including the 2013 conviction of workers for American NGOs, a draconian new NGO law that would crush civil society and impede future assistance, and ongoing dealings with North Korea. These problems have not yet been resolved, but there are positive signs since the suspension of aid. Stay the course. Keep writing conditions into legislation and keep encouraging the administration to use them with confidence.
– Do a bottom-up review of security assistance and right-size it. The U.S.-Egyptian security relationship has been on autopilot at $1.3 billion annually for too long without a rigorous review of whether the size and composition of the assistance suits the Egyptian military’s actual challenges. The Congress should also insist on vigorous implementation of end-use monitoring to ensure that equipment provided by U.S. taxpayers is not used to carry out human rights violations, which enflame radicalization and perpetuate terrorism.
– Support the Egyptian people, not only the military. Two of the crying needs of Egypt right now are 1) labor force development through education to address rampant youth unemployment and 2) modernization of water infrastructure, particularly in agriculture, to help mitigate an impending shortage. While an overall increase in U.S. assistance seems unlikely, the United States could shift funds from security to these categories.
– Express support for democracy and rights. Finally, U.S. officials and members of Congress can express their support, publicly and privately, for democratic procedures and human rights in Egypt. They can cite salutary provisions in the country’s constitution such as term limits, and express hope that they will be upheld. Ultimately it is for Egyptian citizens to decide the future they want for their country, and for American citizens and their representatives to decide what support they are willing to provide to secure that future.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify.
3- Mr. Jared Genser: Adjunct Professor of Law – Georgetown University Law Center
Statement Before: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa
“Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform”
Testimony: Jared Genser
Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center – July 24, 2018
Thank for you for opportunity to testify before you today about the situation in Egypt and the important and complex relationship between Egypt and the United States.
In my remarks this afternoon, I will first discuss my perspective on the situation of human rights in Egypt and its impact on the security situation. Second, I will focus on especially important human rights issues impacting the bilateral relationship. And finally, I will provide my recommendations as to how the United States should use its leverage from its annual appropriations to Egypt to secure important reforms.
I- The Situation of Human Rights in Egypt
After the Egyptian military’s coup ousting President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Egyptian people hoped that the social and political upheaval wrought by the toppling of Hosni Mubarak following by the authoritarian rule of Morsi would yield to a new stability. But the next month, the army attacked a demonstration in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing more than a thousand Morsi supporters and then held a mass trial where 739 people, real and imagined supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, were sentenced to death. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election in June 2014 was supposed to restore economic and political stability, but today Egypt is more authoritarian than it has been in decades.
Under Sisi, crackdowns on freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, and religion are commonplace and new repressive laws have effectively outlawed dissent. Just a few months into office, for example, Sisi signed a law banning demonstrations without police approval. Since then he has adopted new laws to weaken fair trial guarantees and expand the executive branch’s ability to imprison dissenters – today there are tens of thousands of political prisoners. Police forces employ arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial execution, and enforced disappearances to punish dissent. Travel bans and assets freezes are deployed against human rights defenders. And national security officers routinely torture political detainees with techniques including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape. Coptic Christians, an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population and a historic target of legal and societal discrimination, have been victims of sectarian attacks with impunity. And the government has also relentlessly targeted sexual and gender minorities for serious repression, with Human Rights Watch having reported 230 LGBT people prosecuted and 50 sentenced on “debauchery” charges.
Under Sisi, there has also been an unprecedented crackdown on NGOs. In May 2017, Sisi ratified the new NGO law – despite having just come from a trip in Washington where he told President Trump and Members of Congress he wouldn’t sign it – which is effectively eradicating independent civil society groups. The law prohibits NGOs from conducting activities that “harm national security, public order, public morality, or public health”; allows the government to cancel a foreign NGO’s license at any time; and imposes onerous requirements for accepting domestic or foreign funds. More than 180 NGO workers have been arrested or prosecuted in recent years. Sisi now says he won’t enforce the law, but it appears it is already being applied.
While the country has faced major security threats and attacks by armed groups affiliated with ISIL in the Sinai, it is also using counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws to target legitimate dissenters, some of whose cases have been transferred to the Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel judicial system operating since October 2017, which has limited fair trial guarantees and whose decisions are not subject to appeal. Among those detained, for example, has been Amal Fathy, a political activist and wife of the head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
On April 2, 2018, Sisi was reelected president with 97 percent of the votes, with lower than expected turnout and despite all the economic, security, and human rights challenges the country faced during his first term. The only opponent allowed to run against Sisi had supported his campaign until the day before he registered as a candidate.
II- Human Rights Issues in the Bilateral Relationship
The Egyptian people have faced the brunt of the abuses under Sisi’s authoritarian rule. But there are three especially important human rights concerns directly connected to the United States that Sisi has inexplicably allowed to fester, despite the U.S. having provided more than $76 billion in foreign assistance since 1948 and $1.3 billion annually in military assistance alone in recent years.
First, some five years after the felony conviction of 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers, 17 of whom were Americans, the affair has been an unfortunate irritant in U.S.- Egypt relations. It appears Cairo and Washington are close to a resolution of the case, and I can only hope that for all of those impacted by this case, we see a fair and expedient resolution. I know that both the United States and Egypt have remained actively engaged on this issue, and I believe if it were to get a fair resolution, it could be an important measure that shows Egypt’s willingness to improve our bilateral relations and its human rights record.
Second, the Government of Egypt continues to wrongly imprison close to 20 American citizens and legal permanent residents. These include Mustafa Kassem, an American auto parts dealer caught up in the crackdown in Rab’aa Square. And it includes two clients of mine, Ola Al Qaradawi and Hossam Khalaf, a married couple who were approved for green cards during the Trump Administration, and have eight American citizen family members. In the last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for Ola and Hossam’s immediate release and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found they were both being held arbitrarily and in violation of international law. Both have been held incommunicado, in terrible conditions, and without regular access to counsel or any access to family for more than a year. Ola is the longest held female political prisoner in solitary confinement by the Egyptian regime.
Ola has also been on a hunger strike demanding her most basic human rights and her immediate release. While the Trump Administration secured the release of two Americans, Aya Hijazi and Ahmed Etiwy, more hostages have been taken by this purported ally of the United States.
Finally, there is the case of April Corley, a U.S. citizen who is also a client of mine, who was seriously injured in Egypt’s Western desert in an attack by the Egyptian military using a U.S.-funded and supplied Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter in September 2015. April is now permanently disabled, unable to work, and in constant pain. Yet while the Government of Egypt has expressed its remorse, it has offered less money as a settlement than the cost of the Medevac out of Egypt, which April had to pay for out of her own pocket. Sisi has rightly concluded that U.S. military assistance comes with a license to kill or injure Americans with total impunity because he actually has the full protection of our legal system to do so. April, in fact, cannot even sue Egypt for her injuries because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Inexplicably neither President Trump nor President Obama nor the U.S. Congress has imposed any consequence on Egypt for refusing to fairly resolve April’s case or secured a final resolution of the case, despite the fact that it was U.S.-funded equipment that led to her plight.
III- Recommendations to Improve Egypt’s Human Rights Record
As a human rights lawyer, I am often asked to comment on the most effective ways to improve the compliance of governments with their binding obligations under human rights treaties to which they are a party. That is indeed, generally, an enormous challenge.
But in the case of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Egypt, our government has enormous leverage. Contrary to the view of the Government of Egypt, which sees our foreign assistance as an entitlement and not a privilege, the United States has no legal obligation to provide assistance to Egypt.
While it is in our regional strategic interests to support Egypt in its fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism, today it is actually a less important and less effective ally as it has aligned itself with Russia and North Korea and its own capabilities to support our objectives have degraded from within. It is equally a major error in judgment for the United States to ignore the way Sisi is governing, which works directly in contravention of that goal. Indeed, our country knows from experience that radicalization occurs in environments in which an authoritarian ruler suppresses a population’s democratic aspirations for self-government, serious represses its rights, and poorly manages an economy that has a lack of good paying jobs, especially for young people. All of these elements exist today in Sisi’s Egypt. Surely Egypt can find a way to address its legitimate security concerns while ensuring that both the rule of law and human rights are respected. Indeed, this is in the interests of both the U.S. and Egypt as its stability and leadership is important for a secure and stable Middle East.
Yet it is business as usual here in Washington, with Egypt’s aid flowing, basically unimpeded. This not only sends the wrong message to Cairo, but it puts our regional strategic interests at great risk in both the medium and longer term. The smartest way forward for the United States is for President Trump and Secretary Pompeo as well as the U.S. Congress to send a clear and consistent message to Sisi that while the United States views Egypt as an important ally, the American people expect our allies to act in certain ways.
First, the United States must say that Egypt’s actions targeting American citizens and LPRs must stop. For President Trump, who has spoken of “America First,” this motto is empty rhetoric if he tolerates any of this behavior by the Sisi government. The President should tell Sisi, privately as a start, that if he doesn’t permanently resolve the NGO cases, pardon the wrongly imprisoned Americans and LPRs, and pay appropriate compensation to April Corley – all three of which Sisi could do today, fully within his powers as president – then he will have no choice but to make cuts to Egypt’s aid. It is particularly worrying that the Administration may waive the human rights conditions on and releasing the $195 million of FY17 funds that have been held back, which will undoubtedly be taken by Sisi as a clean bill of health on human rights.
Second, the U.S. Congress needs to speak in one voice about the path that Sisi has taken as being unacceptable. While the FY19 foreign operations appropriations bill in the Senate imposes human rights conditions on 30 percent of Egypt’s proposed $1 billion in reduced military assistance, the House bill maintains $1.3 billion in military assistance and imposes no conditions of any kind. As authorizers, you have the ability to advocate with your colleagues here in the House to ensure that regardless of the amount of money ultimately appropriated for Egypt that the final foreign ops approps conference committee bill contains the proposed human rights conditions from the Senate version. If those human rights conditions are dropped, the message sent to Sisi would be unmistakable – that the U.S. will ignore his abuse of numerous Americans, his evisceration of Egypt’s democracy, and the egregious abuses that he has imposed on his own population.
Finally, we need greater transparency and visibility here in Washington not only about the U.S.-Egypt relationship but also the way in which Sisi’s government treats its own people. This hearing is an important start. Nonetheless, I can’t remember the last time I saw any Administration official – from the Trump Administration or Obama Administration before it – testify before the U.S. Congress about the realities of the U.S.- Egypt relationship. And it is also important for the Congress to hear directly from victims of the Sisi government, both American and Egyptian.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I look forward to answering your questions.
4- Mr. Andrew Miller : Deputy Director for Policy – Project on Middle East Democracy
House Foreign Affairs Committee
Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee Hearing
“Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform” – Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Chairman Ros-Lehtinen, Ranking Member Deutch, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, allow me to thank you for inviting me to testify on this important topic. I am going to present what I view as the three key—and concerning—characteristics of Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and explain their implications for U.S. interests. In closing, I will offer two recommendations for how Congress can help to advance vital U.S. interests in Egypt while rightsizing the bilateral relationship.
The first key characteristic of today’s Egypt is that the country is no longer as important to U.S. interests as it once was. President al-Sisi has been unable to reverse years of internal state decay and, with the increasing assertiveness of wealthy Gulf states, Egypt has ceased to be a regional power in the Middle East. The Egyptian government currently possesses neither the wealth, the military power, nor the administrative efficiency to shape events and outcomes elsewhere in the region, with the exceptions of Libya and Gaza. Even the country’s soft power across the region has dissipated.
The days when the United States could rely upon Egypt to serve as an anchor for U.S. interests in the region are long gone. Egypt is not the key to resolving the crisis in Syria, is not at the forefront of efforts to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and lacks the expeditionary capability to deploy outside of its borders in support of the United States.1 While Egypt has influence over the economic situation in Gaza due to its control of the border, it has scant influence in the West Bank, and is in no position to deliver the Palestinians to a peace agreement with Israel.
However, Egypt still matters to the United States, albeit for different reasons than before. Despite its diminished regional importance, Egypt’s ongoing internal deterioration could have serious implications for U.S. interests. While outright state failure does not appear imminent, prolonged instability in Egypt could lead to both new refugee flows from this country of 100 million people or facilitate the rise of terrorist groups with transnational reach. Egypt’s stability, defined not as a ruling regime imposing control through repression but as a society that does not create security risks beyond its borders, is thus of paramount concern to the United States.
Unfortunately, and this is the second key characteristic of today’s Egypt, al-Sisi’s military-backed government is doing poorly at managing the country’s internal challenges. Repression is reaching alarming levels as al-Sisi takes steps that are more characteristic of totalitarian than authoritarian regimes. Since March’s presidential election, al-Sisi has escalated his campaign of arrests against his political opponents in an apparent attempt to consolidate and extend his rule. Just in the past several weeks, there has been a new spate of arrests targeting people like Amal Fathy, a democracy activist who was detained after publicly speaking out against sexual harassment.3 With as many as 60,000 political prisoners already in Egyptian jails, the detention of peaceful political activists shows no signs of abating.4 In contrast to previous authoritarian regimes in Egypt, which allowed some space for civil society to operate, al-Sisi seems determined to snuff out all room for activity independent of the state. And, while some authoritarian regimes have proven durable, totalitarian ones are seldom stable, tending to collapse in ways that are deeply dangerous for their neighbors.
The security situation in Egypt also remains worrisome. Over four years after his first election, and despite extraordinarily repressive measures, President al-Sisi is still yet to neutralize the threat posed by terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s Sinai-based affiliate, which is believed to be responsible for the downing of a Russian airliner and the bombing of churches, among many other attacks. New groups, such as the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) HASM, have also emerged to conduct lower-level attacks in the Egyptian mainland.5 Attesting to the Egyptian government’s lack of progress on counterterrorism, 2017 set the record for the most deaths in terrorist attacks (756) in modern Egyptian history.6 Furthermore, we have seen no concrete evidence that the Egyptian military’s much-hyped “Sinai 2018” campaign has extinguished the ISIS threat in the Sinai. To the contrary, Human Rights Watch reports that an additional 3,000 homes were destroyed during the operation, fueling resentment toward the government and impairing the type of cooperation between the state and the public that is the hallmark of successful counterterrorism campaigns.
President al-Sisi’s government has received kudos for its economic performance, but even here the picture below the surface is deeply troubling. In return for a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), al-Sisi undertook a number of structural adjustments that have helped to stabilize Egypt’s macroeconomic situation. Foreign currency reserves have recovered after reaching dangerously low levels and the economy is expected to grow by 5.2 percent in 2018.8 But just as Mubarak’s once-vaunted economic reforms masked deeper problems and public discontent that ultimately led to the 2011 uprising, conditions in the real economy in which Egyptians live are getting harder. Indeed, al-Sisi’s government has neglected the impact of economic reforms on the Egyptian people, whose living standards have declined sharply. fte poverty rate in Egypt has jumped from 27.8 percent in 2016 to an estimated 35 percent in 2017, partly due to IMF-mandated subsidy cuts on which the poorest Egyptians depended.9 fte government, moreover, has no clear plan to create the 700,000 to 1,000,000 jobs per year necessary to prevent the unemployment rate from increasing further.10 Even middle class Egyptians are struggling badly, as the combined effects of inflation—14.4 percent as of June—and devaluation have gutted their spending power.11 fte growing role of the military in the economy has made it even more difficult for the average Egyptian to reap the benefits of al-Sisi’s reforms, and al-Sisi’s financing of wasteful “megaprojects” through massive borrowing has turned public debt, which is currently 107 percent of GDP, into a ticking time bomb.
It is thus not surprising that Egypt has averaged more than one protest per day—252 in total—in the first half of 2018, most of them over economic discontent. Another looming threat on the horizon is Egypt’s water supply, a problem that successive Egyptian governments have badly mismanaged.
Simply put, Egypt already does not have enough water for its population, and experts have estimated that, once operational, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could temporarily reduce Egypt’s water supply by as much as a further 25 percent.13 Given Egypt’s dependence on water for agriculture and electricity generation, and its growing population, such a development could prove crippling for a weak economy. While it may be too late to reach an agreement with Ethiopia that would mitigate the dam’s impact on Egypt, al-Sisi’s government has largely failed to regulate highly water-intensive agricultural and construction practices that could insulate Egypt from the worst effects of the dam.
The third characteristic of today’s Egypt is that it is an extremely difficult partner for the United States. The Cold War consensus that held together the U.S.-Egyptian relationship no longer holds, and Egyptian interests often diverge from those of the United States. For example, Egypt has continued its political, economic, and military cooperation with North Korea, helping Pyongyang to acquire badly needed foreign currency, at the precise time the Trump administration has sought to apply maximum pressure on King Jong Un’s regime.14 Egypt is also determined to build a closer relationship with Russia, regardless of how the United States treats Egypt. And, at the United Nations Security Council, Egypt has opposed U.S. positions on Syria and Israel.
Even where the United States and Egypt share common interests, Egypt has often rejected U.S. cooperation and assistance. Counterterrorism (CT) is a case in point. While Egypt has gladly accepted U.S. military equipment funded by American taxpayer money, it has largely spurned other forms of support that are arguably more important to its CT success, including training and advice.15 ftis is particularly detrimental to CT in Egypt, as the Egyptian military’s struggles against the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai appear to be a function of poor doctrine and tactics rather than equipment shortfalls. Moreover, al-Sisi’s government has ignored U.S. concerns that its political repression and mass incarceration of peaceful actors is fueling radicalization trends in the country, in effect creating new terrorists.16 As one former prisoner noted, “In the beginning , no one had even heard of Daesh, but by the time I left, maybe 20 percent were openly supporting their ideas… after all those years of being in jail with no explanation, many wanted revenge.”17 Yet, repeated U.S. warnings that Egypt needs to take prison radicalization seriously have fallen on deaf ears.
Egypt’s declining utility to the United States as a partner is all the more striking given how much money the United States has invested in Egypt. In recent years, the U.S. government has continued to provide Egypt with an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance, which in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 accounted for 21 percent of all U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds globally, making the country the second largest recipient of FMF worldwide.18 And this is on top of the $47 billion in military assistance and $24 billion in economic aid that the United States has given to Egypt over the last forty years.
As a whole, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that the United States is getting a good return on its investment in Egypt. Egypt has lost regional influence, but the United States continues to provide al-Sisi’s government with the second largest FMF package in the world. Egypt is moving in the wrong direction, endangering key U.S. interests in human rights and counterterrorism, while rejecting U.S. advice on how to turn around this negative trajectory. What can the United States do to break out of this unsatisfactory cycle?
There are two steps that Congress could take that would both advance vital U.S. interests and ensure that the U.S. investment in Egypt is proportional to its return. Both concern U.S. military assistance to Egypt, which is no coincidence. fte Egyptian government values U.S. military assistance above all else. If the U.S. government is to get through to al-Sisi’s government, U.S. aid will have to be put on (or off) the table.
First, Congress should retain human rights conditions on Egypt’s military assistance package in the FY19 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill. The Trump administration made use of this conditionality last August when it suspended $195 million in FMF funding for Egypt. As a result of this pressure, the Egyptian government finally arranged for a retrial in the infamous foreign funding case, in which 43 employees of U.S. and German-based NGOs, including 17 Americans, received prison sentences on politicized charges in 2013. Egypt also reportedly forced North Korea to reduce the staff level of its embassy in Cairo, Pyongyang’s largest mission in the region. While neither step is sufficient to justify the release of the $195 million, they indicate that U.S. pressure is having some effect. In FY19, Congress should condition a portion of military assistance to Egypt on progress in several important areas, including a cessation of the investigation and arrest of activists and democracy- promotion organizations, the release of political prisoners, and granting U.S. military officials access to the Sinai to perform end-use monitoring of U.S.-made military equipment.
Second, Congress should reduce military assistance to Egypt from $1.3 billion to $1 billion in the FY19 appropriations bill, as proposed in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s markup. As things currently stand, Egypt both views U.S. military support as an entitlement and believes itself to be more important to the United States than vice versa. Based on these perceptions, the Egyptian government expects the United States will ultimately back down from any threat or sanction, which undermines U.S. influence in Egypt. Reducing Egypt’s annual military assistance appropriation would send the unmistakable message that the United States expects more in return for its support to Egypt. In addition, by disabusing Egypt of the notion that it can take its existing level of funding for granted, Congress can restore U.S. leverage over the Egyptian government.
The risks of cutting Egypt’s military assistance and retaining human rights conditionality are often exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, the United States did not undertake an indefinite commitment to provide Egypt with any specific level of military support at Camp David; reducing military assistance to Egypt would thus not put the United States in breach of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. Moreover, the Peace Treaty is no longer dependent on U.S. mediation; Israel and Egypt have become solid, if quiet, allies. Nor will Egypt abandon the United States in favor of Russia or China in response to a reduction in assistance. Russia and China, in contrast to the United States, do not provide Egypt with military equipment as grant assistance, and the Egyptian government has no desire to be wholly dependent on any external patron, whether it is the United States or Russia. And, finally, a reduction in U.S. military assistance will not degrade the Egyptian military’s ability or interest in combating terrorist groups. Egypt needs better training, which is relatively inexpensive, not new tools.
Egypt is on a dangerous course, one with grave implications for the United States. It will be difficult to reverse this trajectory, but Congress has an important opportunity to help the Trump administration tackle this thorny challenge by restoring U.S. credibility and influence with Egypt. If military assistance to Egypt is reduced and conditioned, the Trump administration will be in a stronger position to persuade al-Sisi’s government to open up political space, reform its military doctrine, and address the country’s growing radicalization problem. At the very least, cutting Egypt’s military aid will be a service to the American taxpayer, who has seen little return on their investment in the current Egyptian government. The U.S.-Egyptian military assistance relationship no longer makes sense in its current form; I hope Congress will take this chance to recalibrate U.S. aid for a new era.