American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
Since his earliest days on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to reexamine Washington’s relationships with authoritarian governments. In an unusually blunt tweet last July, then candidate Biden singled out one of the world’s most abusive autocrats, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, pledging “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.” So far, however, U.S.-Egyptian relations have been business as usual.
There is little dispute that Sisi’s rule, a military dictatorship in all but name, is the most repressive in Egypt’s modern history. Since Sisi assumed office in 2014, Egypt’s place on global indexes measuring democratization has plunged. Human rights organizations have documented his government’s systematic abuses, including horrific massacres, extrajudicial executions, and widespread torture. Basic civil liberties have all but disappeared under new laws that allow the prosecution of critics for terrorism. With over 60,000 Egyptians detained for “political crimes,” Egypt’s prisons are overflowing. On June 14, Egypt’s supreme court sentenced to death 12 men, mostly senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, on fabricated charges and condemned hundreds more to lengthy prison terms in a mass trial of nearly 800 people.
As Biden approaches the midpoint of his first year in office, he should make good on his promise to recalibrate Washington’s approach to Cairo. Half measures will not suffice: the time has come to fully cut off the massive aid that the United States delivers year after year to the Egyptian regime, which succeeds only in making Americans complicit in Sisi’s abuses.
There is a growing bipartisan movement to replace the United States’ militarized approach to the world with a policy of restraint and humility. But public debate has been narrow, with those encouraging or bemoaning a so-called withdrawal from the Middle East focused on troop deployments and other forms of direct military engagement. Few have fully considered the role of U.S. weapons transfers in propping up abusive governments as a far more prevalent, persistent, and pernicious aspect of U.S. dominance, or examined whether such transfers achieve their stated goals.
For decades, a steady flow of funds from Washington to Cairo—more than $50 billion in military aid plus an additional $30 billion in economic assistance since 1978—has assured Egyptian leaders that they possess something the world’s dictators value far more than even the most advanced military hardware: political support from the United States. The steady stream of dollars into their coffers sends an important message to ordinary Egyptians, too. No matter what state-sponsored torture or terror they suffer, the United States has their government’s back, and aside from the occasional stern statement of concern, Washington will do nothing to end its support for their abusers.
U.S. economic aid to Egypt is no less harmful than military aid. Although there may have been a time when Washington could direct economic aid to independent civil society groups, these groups have virtually ceased to exist in Sisi’s Egypt. The Egyptian government controls every aid dollar it receives, whether directly or through the so-called nongovernmental organizations that it actually controls.
U.S. economic aid to Egypt is no less harmful than military aid.
For the United States, this is not just a moral problem but also a legal one: contributing to human rights abuses is a violation of international human rights law and of U.S. law itself. Unlike the “Leahy Laws” that narrowly restrict U.S. military assistance to particular military units found to have committed abuses, Section 502B of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act makes no distinction between different divisions of a government. If the government is a gross violator of human rights, then any and all security assistance to it from the United States is prohibited. Section 502B has never been enforced to prohibit military transfers to an abusive government; doing so would require the president to provide written notification to Congress of “extraordinary circumstances” to justify providing military transfers to a state found to be a systematic abuser by the State Department. But both Democratic and Republican administrations have disregarded the law; when asked about this in 2014, the State Department verified it had never invoked Section 502B because it is “overly broad.” But if there were ever a case when the Biden administration should do its job, this is it. By providing military support to a government whose abuses are as systematic and widespread as Egypt’s, the United States is inescapably implicated in the Sisi government’s crimes. It is no longer possible to pretend that American aid does not play a critical role in bolstering a brutal dictatorship.
For decades, members of Congress have tried to condition U.S. economic and military aid to Egypt on the Egyptian government making specific gestures in support of human rights—amending a particularly repressive law, for example, or releasing a group of political prisoners. But because these efforts—generally triggered by members of Congress calling on the State Department to “pressure” Egypt—are based on the flawed assumption that U.S. aid will and should continue, they have wound up justifying continued support for Egypt without achieving any meaningful reforms.
A more honest reckoning would recognize that repression in Egypt is not accidental or a byproduct of particular excesses but a deliberate and essential strategy for its dictatorship’s survival. It has not been lost on Sisi that the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, emerged in the wake of Mubarak’s loosening of restrictions on political expression. Like all of the region’s dictators, Sisi believes he is playing a zero-sum game: more freedoms mean a higher risk of being overthrown. This is why Sisi would never submit to demands for meaningful reforms. If forced to choose between losing U.S. military aid and loosening his grip, he would always give up the aid.
Repression in Egypt is not accidental, but a deliberate strategy for its dictatorship’s survival.
What is more, the notion that the United States will actually withdraw its aid to sanction Egypt’s abuses is simply not credible, and Sisi knows it. Only once in the past 40 years has the United States withheld military aid to Egypt and obtained a small concession. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush withheld approval for Egypt’s requested increase of $133 million in military aid following the sentencing of Egyptian American Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim to seven years in prison for his human rights advocacy. Four months later, an Egyptian court exonerated Ibrahim, and Bush approved the increase. Other temporary suspensions of aid have always been ended, thanks to national security waivers and sometimes fabricated claims by the State Department that Egypt had met the relevant conditions.
Biden now inherits an aid package for 2022 that includes, for the first time, an “unwaivable” condition imposed by Congress on $75 million of aid to Egypt requiring “clear and consistent progress in releasing political prisoners and providing detainees with due process of law.” That represents less than five percent of Egypt’s $1.3 billion aid package for 2022; another $225 million is conditioned but with the usual national security waiver, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to exercise, as he is expected to waive in August the conditions on the $300 million in conditioned aid for 2021.
Successive administrations have prioritized the release of detained Egyptian Americans and Egyptian rights activists and succeeded in securing the release of two U.S. citizens after years of torture and imprisonment. In one prominent case, repeated threats of aid suspensions and even personal appeals from Vice President Mike Pence failed to secure the release Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian American who was detained for six years and died in custody in January 2020. With each successful release, Sisi has arrested several replacement prisoners, including family members of Egyptian American activists. They serve as valuable chits to be offered up for the next round of reform demands.
There can be no underestimating the value of the lives of prisoners saved. But advocacy that focuses on securing prisoner releases by urging conditions on aid may also contribute to moral and political hazards. It diverts the energies of advocates who endlessly cycle back to mythical aid conditionality to achieve “reform” and distracts from grappling with the much larger harm of continued support for an unreformable, brutal dictatorship.
A number of objections always emerge in response to any suggestion that the United States stop funding Egyptian authoritarianism. They stem from decades-old shibboleths about U.S. security interests that have produced a lazy, defeatist, unimaginative, and harmful approach. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to update the relationship with Egypt in a way that reflects Washington’s present-day strategic and security interests. The American people would support seeing their government end its arming of Middle Eastern dictators; it is why Biden made this a central campaign promise. Now, he has an opportunity to normalize the relationship with Egypt to better align with the United States’ actual national interests.
For starters, Israel no longer needs the United States to bribe Egypt into maintaining the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal. The alliance between the two countries is at this point stronger and more mutually beneficial than Washington’s relationship with either of them. Egyptian state media regularly broadcasts excoriating verbal attacks against Israel that are designed to placate Egyptians who remain highly critical of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Yet the Israeli and Egyptian governments enjoy strong, bilateral military and intelligence ties and collaborate to maintain their control over the people of Sinai and Gaza.
These ties have significantly expanded since the 2013 coup, which Israel supported, that brought Sisi to power. Egypt and Israel have conducted joint military operations in Sinai, with Israel carrying out hundreds of airstrikes to support Egypt’s war against the lingering insurgency there. The two countries jointly seal both ends of Gaza’s crossings and share intelligence on Hamas and other militant groups. Egypt has also taken on responsibility for helping secure Israel’s borders, shooting dead scores of migrants and asylum seekers from Africa crossing Egypt to reach Israel.
Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates now also have a powerful regional alliance. Although their interests are not fully aligned, they collaborate on mutually supportive actions designed to maintain their regional control over perceived nemeses, including Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, as well as Islamist and pro-democracy movements across the region. They act in concert in lobbying Washington, defending arms sales and transfers for their countries. Their alliance also serves as a hedge against Washington taking a harder line with any one of them. The result is that an end to U.S. aid to Egypt would have hardly any effect on what is now a deep and well-established relationship between Egypt and Israel.
Another familiar justification for maintaining U.S. aid to Egypt is the preferential access that Egypt offers to U.S. military warships passing through the Suez Canal and the overflight rights Cairo extends to Washington for military aircraft in Egyptian airspace. Yet there is a sleight of hand in the argument that only $1.3 billion in military aid can secure these privileges or that this is an appropriate price for these benefits. If this special access is valuable to the U.S. military, then Washington can and should pay for it on a tailored pricing scheme, at most a premium on the rates Egypt charges the U.S. Navy and other states and companies for each ship that passes through the Suez Canal. The Biden administration should treat the purchase of such access as a transaction and nothing more. If the two governments cannot come to an agreement about the price, all is not lost. Alternative sea and air routes may be more costly and time consuming, but they do exist. Diversifying shipping and overflight routes would also be strategically wise, as the latest Suez Canal blockage crisis attests.
Defenders of the status quo also warn that Egypt will seek to replace U.S. patronage with support from China or Russia. This falsely assumes that U.S. aid limits Egypt’s dealings with U.S. competitors and secures Cairo’s loyalty when it comes to arms purchases. But Egypt has already diversified. The United States is no longer the predominant supplier of Egypt’s weapons; Egypt now buys only 15 percent of its arms from the United States, down from 47 percent in 2010.
Ending U.S. military and economic aid to Egypt would not mean ending the relationship altogether. There is no reason why the two countries could not continue to pursue mutually beneficial engagements, such as counterterrorism cooperation, or coordination on regional conflicts, such as Egypt’s hosting discussions for the recent Gaza ceasefire. There is also no reason why the United States would not be able to continue to pursue trade deals and encourage investment in Egypt or carry out educational and cultural exchanges.
The two biggest proponents of continued aid are, unsurprisingly, those who profit: the Egyptian government and American defense contractors, including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, which manufacture the weapons systems that Cairo purchases with the money Washington sends its way. The Biden administration should end the decades-long practice of allowing those special interests to determine U.S. policy. American aid to Egypt is a harmful anachronism; the time has come to move on.