Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump hosted his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the White House. At their meeting, Trump assured Sisi that “together… we will fight terrorism.” That is good news for the Egyptian president. After years of strained bilateral relations, the Trump administration is embracing Egypt as a counterterrorism partner. But it is unclear that Egypt is actually an asset in the most pressing battle against terrorism, the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

A video that surfaced two weeks ago highlights the problem. It aired on a Muslim Brotherhood network and showed Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula summarily executing a handful of alleged Islamist insurgent prisoners. Beyond what appear to be significant human rights abuses, to date Cairo has demonstrated a stunning lack of will and competence to eradicate ISIS from Egyptian territory. If the Trump administration wants a partner, it should use its burgeoning relationship with the Sisi government to help Cairo improve its counterterrorism practices.

Since 2011, Egypt has been losing ground against a virulent but numerically small insurgency in the Sinai. Notwithstanding its 440,000-strong standing army and $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance, over the past five years, Egypt has been unable to contain—much less roll back—an estimated 600–1,000 insurgents. Indeed, the Sinai-based insurgents have an impressive and growing list of accomplishments. Since 2014—when the local insurgent group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdas, pledged allegiance to ISIS—the group has downed an Egyptian military helicopter, destroyed an M-60 battle tank, sunk an Egyptian patrol boat, and bombed a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 civilians.

During the same time period, ISIS has killed an estimated 2,000 Egyptian military officers and policemen in the Sinai. But they’re not the only victims. ISIS has been targeting Christians too, triggering a mass exodus of that minority from the peninsula. Just weeks ago, ISIS attacked Saint Catherine’s, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. 

Beyond what appear to be significant human rights abuses, Cairo has demonstrated a stunning lack of will and competence to eradicate ISIS from Egyptian territory.

The same Egyptian military incapable of protecting Sinai’s Christians has also been unable to safeguard the nearly 1,700 Multinational Force Observers (MFO) stationed in the area to monitor the provisions of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Accordingly, the force—which includes about 700 U.S. troops—has relocated from its base in the north to the relatively more secure south Sinai. ISIS is also threatening Israeli security, periodically lobbing rockets across the border toward the city of Eilat. In turn, last month Israel prohibited its citizens from entering the Sinai. Meanwhile, terrorism is spreading from the peninsula to the previously peaceful Nile Valley and Delta, where attacks against policemen and bombings of Coptic Churches have become routine.

ISIS’s strategy, tactics, and leadership are evolving. Once a locally-led expression of an aggrieved Bedouin population, the insurgents today are increasingly oriented toward Raqqa. As a result, they have received additional funding and developed a more professional media campaign, and their focus has shifted to unabashedly killing Christians. ISIS in Egypt is also adapting more lethal technologies—such as explosively formed penetrators or EFPs—to great effect against government forces and, taking a page from the ISIS mothership, fanning sectarianism.

As the so-called ISIS Sinai Province is evolving, Egypt’s military approach has stagnated. Focused on economic pursuits and force preservation, Egyptian ground forces do not routinely and proactively engage with the enemy. Instead, they are slowly attrited by ambushes and roadside bombs. Further, Egypt is increasingly subcontracting out its security to the Israeli Air Force, which now has carte blanche to target terrorists via manned and unmanned aircraft operating in Egyptian airspace. Israel is “mowing the grass” in the Sinai, but it is not reversing ISIS’s territorial gains, an objective that would require (non-Israeli) boots on the ground.

An Egyptian military helicopter patrols the skies over Cairo, January 2016.
Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

For many in Washington, ISIS’s relative strength is concerning. The Trump administration may be able to deprioritize or ignore the thorny topic of human rights with Cairo, but it cannot do the same with the rise of ISIS in the most populous Arab state. Yet after the nearly 40 years and $50 billion in U.S. military assistance since Camp David, it’s becoming clear that American assistance to Egypt’s armed forces has not succeeded in making that army even minimally capable, nor has it bolstered the determination of the leadership in Cairo to deploy forces on difficult combat missions.

To be sure, the aid may be helping to prevent some worst-case scenarios. U.S. military assistance, for example, likely dissuades Cairo from moving closer to Moscow. It may also be helping to forestall the collapse of the state and with it, potentially, the migration of millions of Egyptians to Europe. But Washington needs to find creative ways to encourage the political leadership in Cairo to prod the military into doing its job more effectively, especially counterinsurgency operations. Recently, Egypt requested and received U.S. training for detecting and disposing of IEDs. Based on its performance, the Egyptian military also desperately needs training in counterinsurgency tactics, and perhaps on-the-ground assistance and coaching from U.S. personnel. Such U.S. technical support would extend beyond kinetic operations to include other aspects of modern counterinsurgency, or COIN, campaigns, such as economic development and public diplomacy messaging.   

The United States should also urge Egypt to make changes to its procurements of American military equipment, which it purchases with U.S. financial assistance. Given the threats Egypt faces, which almost exclusively relate to terrorism and by extension border security, there is little rationale for the kind of big ticket items Cairo has long prioritized, including tanks, fighter jets, amphibious assault/helicopter carrier ships, and upgrades to long-range missiles. It would be far more productive for Cairo to purchase more Blackhawk helicopters to improve the military’s rapid reaction capabilities, and to spend money to help it improve surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance through ISTAR systems that might enhance counterinsurgency operations. 

To be sure, the Egyptian military will be loath to accept U.S. suggestions in this regard. Since putting conditions on U.S. assistance has not been successful in the past, the Trump administration should focus on incentives, including leveraging “cash flow financing,” a perquisite that until 2015 allowed Egypt to use future U.S. financial assistance as credit to purchase expensive weapons systems. Washington could reinstitute cash flow financing, which was scrapped in 2015 after the military coup, but only for equipment that the U.S. Department of Defense deems related to counterterrorism and border security operations.

Washington should also consider increasing funding for Egypt’s rather modest military education and training program, known as IMET. In 2016, the U.S. Department of State allocated just $1.8 million to this endeavor. By comparison, in the same year Jordan—whose army is 15 percent the size of Egypt’s—was given $3.8 million for military training. The administration should consider reprograming or earmarking some of Egypt’s $1.3 billion in U.S. Foreign Military Financing, or FMF, to enhance these programs, with a special focus on exposing more Egyptian officers to modern COIN techniques.

Finally, despite Egypt’s attachment to large-scale military training exercises designed to prepare for fighting a nation state, Washington should scrap or radically redesign the annual “Bright Star” operation. In the past, the United States has held this weeks-long training exercise with Egypt, involving at various times amphibious landing drills, airborne jumps, and large-scale tank maneuvers. The problem, of course, is that Egypt has no state enemies, making these drills largely irrelevant. Given vested interests in Cairo and Washington, it may be difficult to end Bright Star altogether, but a significant portion of the exercise should be repurposed to focus on counterterrorism operations, something Egypt really needs.

Egypt will not be easily changed, even in ways that are, to most observers, obviously in Egypt’s self-interest. Nevertheless, Washington should continue to press Cairo to do so, because its success against ISIS in the Sinai and throughout the entirety of the state is in U.S. national security interest interests. 

At his White House meeting earlier this month, Sisi told Trump, “You will find me and Egypt next to you [as you] implement the strategy to confront and eradicate terrorism.” Sisi is no doubt sincere in his support for the United States in the war against ISIS. For that matter, he is also supportive of Israel’s military efforts. The real question, though, is how committed Egypt is to its own fight against terrorism. 

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  • DAVID SCHENKER is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

  • More By David Schenker