The US-Egypt Political-Military Relationship: A Critical Assessment

The US-Egypt relationship, once a cornerstone of American security and foreign policy in the Middle East, is in trouble.

True, it is hard to tell from the headlines. To President Trump, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has “done a fantastic job” and  the two countries “have very special things happening, as our relationship has never been stronger.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo avows that “the US-Egypt relationship is one of our deepest and broadest partnerships in the region.” For his part, Sisi proclaims he “very much admire[s] President Trump” and that, under Trump’s leadership, “the United States has regained its weight in the region and its role … We are completely supporting and cooperating with President Trump on this.”

But while the friendly rhetoric is as warm as ever, the political-military transactionalism that underlies the relationship is cooling off.

For one thing, the Egyptian military’s takeover of the country in a 2013 coup, accompanied by a rising tide of human rights abuses, have led to questions about the long-term stability of the state and whether the United States is wise to associate itself so closely with an increasingly despotic regime.

The Egyptian military’s takeover of the country in a 2013 coup, accompanied by a rising tide of human rights abuses, have led to questions about the long-term stability of the state and whether the United States is wise to associate itself so closely with an increasingly despotic regime.

In addition, from a US perspective, the return on investment has been lacking in the last few years. The military relationship has flagged, especially as the Egyptian armed forces have increasingly turned inward, focusing on domestic terrorist threats and crackdowns on internal dissent. The Egypt-Israel relationship, once viewed as the principal alignment on which lasting regional peace—especially Israeli-Palestinian peace—would be built, is today largely taken for granted and, in any case, somewhat diminished in importance as prospects for a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine have faded (the administration’s “deal of the century” notwithstanding). Washington has focused increasingly on improving ties between the Arab Gulf states and Israel as the foundation for future peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.

As the fundamentals of the 40-year US-Egypt relationship have started to show their age, congressional critics of administration policy have begun taking note. Questions are being raised about the utility of unfaltering support for Cairo, and a point of diminishing returns is becoming more apparent. For Washington, the time for a reevaluation of the US-Egypt relationship is at hand.

The Changing Bilateral Relationship, from Mubarak to Sisi

Under Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who ruled Egypt for 30 years, the regime managed to carry out a program of iron-fisted repression behind a modernizing façade, usually managing to avoid harsh criticism from its foreign patrons, particularly the United States. Despite tight controls on political expression, rigged elections, imprisonment of oppositionists, and the use of torture, Mubarak succeeded in projecting to the world an image of the benevolent autocrat doing what was necessary to maintain internal stability in a rough neighborhood while working toward a more prosperous future for his people. As Mubarak became more intolerant of criticism in the latter years of his rule, he came in for increasing criticism from Washington; President George Bush suspended new aid to Egypt in 2002 to punish its jailing of the scholar and activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and President Barack Obama likewise kept Mubarak at arm’s length. But Mubarak’s willingness to support US regional goals, particularly with respect to the Middle East peace process, helped insulate him from most serious external pressure for political reform.

This particular set of delusions was harshly exposed by the eruption of the Arab Spring, which swept Mubarak from power in 2011 and led to the unstable rule of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. While less repressive than Mubarak, Morsi proved far less capable of managing the country, improving the economy, and especially, keeping the armed forces happy. Morsi’s ill-starred term in office was abruptly terminated by a military coup in 2013 that took advantage of a wave of vast anti-Morsi protests that were at least partially engineered by old-guard economic and political elites allied with the army.

Having dropped its mantle as neutral guarantor of the stability and security of the state, the Egyptian armed forces moved quickly to consolidate power with a series of moves that were shocking in their brutality.  

Having dropped its mantle as neutral guarantor of the stability and security of the state, the Egyptian armed forces moved quickly to consolidate power with a series of moves that were shocking in their brutality. The Rabaa massacre in August 2014, in which at least 1,000 people, mainly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood participating in a sit-in, were killed, put the world on notice that the new regime would stop at nothing to safeguard its rule. The subsequent crackdown, including a massive increase in political prisoners, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, curbs on civil society, and stringent restrictions on free expression and assembly, ushered in a new era of dictatorship unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.

These developments have alarmed many in the US administration and Congress. In August 2017 the administration formally denied Egypt almost $100 million in aid and withheld another $195 million in military assistance, mainly over human rights concerns and, particularly, a strict new NGO law. As political turmoil stirs in Sudan and Algeria against the entrenched rule of a pair of autocratic leaders, US policymakers have begun to think about a potential resurgence of the Arab Spring, and Egypt cannot be far from their thoughts.

Bilateral Military Relationship Losing Importance

As concerns grow about the role of the military in Egyptian politics, raising questions about the political costs of continuing to underwrite an increasingly repressive regime, so too have doubts arisen about whether the investment of scarce aid resources and diplomatic capital justify the risks. To put it simply, the value of the Egyptian military alliance is slowly eroding.

Egypt’s reorientation toward the United States and away from the Soviet Union in the 1970s was considered a huge diplomatic coup in Washington during the Cold War tensions of the time. A generous US military assistance package was viewed as a small price to pay to keep Egypt on America’s side and reward it for signing the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1978. Over the decades, the value of US security assistance to Egypt has amounted to some $80 billion. Egypt contributed a division-sized force to combat operations in the first Gulf War in 1990, affording the US-led coalition crucial Arab cover for its campaign to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. As US military intervention in the broader Middle East ramped up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the importance of US-Egyptian military-to-military ties increased as well; the United States counted on priority access to Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal to speed movements of ships, aircraft, personnel, and materiel to and from the operational theaters.

In recent years, however, these calculations have changed. The United States has wound down its presence in Iraq and is poised to exit Syria, leaving behind only a few hundred troops. And, after 14 years of war, Washington is pursuing negotiations with the Taliban to end the conflict in Afghanistan, which likely means cutting the 14,000 US troops now in the country by at least half. Egypt is now significantly less important to the US military’s operational plans.

The Egyptian armed forces have become less—and not more—capable as a fighting force, in spite of billions spent on US military equipment and training, and more recent signs of a top-down push to upgrade their capabilities.

Moreover, as the years have gone by, the Egyptian armed forces have become less—and not more—capable as a fighting force, in spite of billions spent on US military equipment and training, and more recent signs of a top-down push to upgrade their capabilities. Egypt’s military is largely incapable of projecting force much beyond its immediate borders and, with its mission increasingly focused on internal security and domestic counterterrorism operations, particularly in the Sinai, it has lost some of its standing as a regional military powerhouse, particularly in relation to the Gulf states. Among other things, this means that Cairo would be hard-pressed to contribute much more than symbolic support to US regional goals, such as counterbalancing Iran through the Middle East Strategic Alliance.

It is apparent that Egypt is punching below its weight in regional political-military affairs and has been for some time, a trend that is likely to continue. As Andrew Miller, a former director for Egypt and Israel military issues on the National Security Council staff, noted in congressional testimony in 2018, “the country is no longer as important to U.S. interests as it once was … 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’s Worrisome Behavior Casts a Pall

In addition, the Sisi government has adopted policy positions that should be of serious concern to American policymakers. Cairo has pushed closer military ties with Russia, granting Moscow limited access to its western air bases for operations in Libya. Sisi and Putin signed a strategic partnership treaty in 2018 intended to expand military, trade, and other ties between the two countries. In 2017 Egypt rose to second on the list of Russia’s major arms customers, behind only India, with $1.1 billion in purchases, mainly surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft. There is little doubt that both Moscow and Cairo view their expanding bilateral ties as a way for each to broaden their influence and clout on the Middle East stage.

That is not all. Egypt’s ties to North Korea run counter to US proliferation concerns and efforts to rein in North Korea’s black-market weapons dealing; indeed, Cairo’s secret arms deals with Pyongyang were a key factor, along with human rights concerns, in Washington’s decision to cancel or suspend some military aid in August 2017. In Libya, Egypt has sided with General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army, in his power struggle with the UN- and US-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

There is also the question of Egypt’s mistreatment of US citizens. At least 18 Americans are known to be held in prison, many facing dubious charges and suffering in abject conditions. Most seem to be Egyptian-Americans who had the misfortune to be seized in security roundups following the 2013 coup, or in the ongoing crackdown against civil society organizations. Like other Egyptians, the imprisoned Americans caught up in Egypt’s legal system have faced lengthy delays in resolution of their legal cases and have routinely been denied access to any evidence against them. More seriously, many have reported abuse and torture in prison.

Given all this, it is fair to observe that the combination of Egypt’s eroding influence in the region, limited military clout, troubling relationships with US adversaries, and worsening human rights record have devalued the US-Egyptian relationship’s utility to the achievement of American diplomatic and security goals in the region. Whether that will result in a restructuring of that relationship is an open question, but the US Congress, for one, is starting to look for an answer.

The Hill and the White House at Cross Purposes

Congress has long sought to place the US-Egyptian relationship on a sounder footing, restructuring the aid relationship to reflect changing realities. Economic assistance has been on a long downward glidepath since the late 1990s; according to the Congressional Research Service, “U.S. economic aid to Egypt has been reduced by over 90%, from $833 million in FY1998 to a request of $75 million for FY2019. The $75 million FY2019 request for Egypt is well below prior year appropriations.” Congress is also displaying a heightened interest in conditioning aid on human rights improvements; since 2012, it has inserted provisions in appropriations legislation requiring Foreign Military Funding to Egypt to be withheld until the secretary of state certifies Egypt is taking steps to support democracy and human rights. Legislation since 2013 has also withheld portions Economic Support Funds to Egypt due to the government’s persecution of democracy workers and nongovernmental organizations.

The White House and State Department have consistently touted Egypt’s cooperation on regional counterterrorism efforts and have praised the US-Egyptian relationship at every turn.

For its part, the Trump Administration has tried to deflect such pressure. The White House and State Department have consistently touted Egypt’s cooperation on regional counterterrorism efforts and have praised the US-Egyptian relationship at every turn. In July 2018 the administration restored the $195 million in assistance suspended the previous year over concerns about human rights and North Korea after Cairo took some steps to address ties with Pyongyang, although repression persisted. (In releasing the aid, Secretary of State Pompeo did deliver an unvarnished assessment of Cairo’s human rights record, but this had no noticeable impact on regime behavior.) Pompeo honored Sisi’s government by delivering a major policy address in Cairo last January, where he took the opportunity to repudiate President Obama’s Middle East policy, praise the Egyptian regime, and ignore human rights abuses in the country.

Most concerning of all, the administration has been silent on recent moves to amend the Egyptian constitution to abolish term limits and enable Sisi to remain in office until 2034. A bill now before parliament also enacts other changes that would essentially end judicial independence and elevate the army’s role in politics. The lack of official US concern is likely to be interpreted by the regime and the Egyptian public as approval for the unprecedented power grab.

New Congress, New Scrutiny

With the installation of a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives in January, congressional scrutiny of Egypt’s record may intensify.  The negative attention focused on human rights abuses by Sisi’s chief Arab patron, Saudi Arabia, and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), may help shine a spotlight on Egypt’s internal situation.

The Trump Administration’s feckless support of both Sisi and MBS may also encourage Congress to take a closer look. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Labor (and Human Rights Watch Washington director) Tom Malinowski, recently elected to Congress as a Democrat of New Jersey, told Mada Masr that “Egypt has done absolutely nothing for the United States that justifies the provision of billions of dollars of military aid … I do believe that there is likely to be greater skepticism, in part because you have a few more people entering the Congress who care about human rights and because the Egyptian government has failed to demonstrate what benefit the United States gets from this relationship. I would also expect a much more critical focus on the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and that may have some implications for how Egypt is viewed.”

Washington would do well to put Cairo on notice that conditions on foreign aid will not routinely be waived; it should also ensure that human rights continue to be meaningfully raised both publicly and privately.

The administration could do much to change this narrative. It could heighten pressure on Egypt to change its troubling behavior on diplomatic issues of importance to the United States, including those pertaining to Russia and North Korea. Washington would do well to put Cairo on notice that conditions on foreign aid will not routinely be waived; it should also ensure that human rights continue to be meaningfully raised both publicly and privately. Washington must keep up pressure on Cairo to release Americans imprisoned on political charges and to treat them humanely while in custody. The US administration can help revitalize the bilateral military relationship by maintaining pressure to direct assistance to the areas where it will do the most good, especially border security and counterterrorism training and equipment, and away from the heavy weapons and combat aircraft needed to fight conventional war.

Congress should not shy away from doing what it can to bring about a correction in course. There is certainly some bipartisan basis for doing so. Lawmakers would be wise to ensure continued conditionality of the Egypt aid package on human rights concerns and, if necessary, to strip appropriations legislation of waiver authority, as was done in FY2014. Congress should also speak out on the proposed package of constitutional amendments that “will deprive Egyptians of any hope of addressing their concerns through peaceful politics” and entrench Sisi and the military in power for many years to come, as the Working Group on Egypt has urged. The Trump Administration should be encouraged to do likewise. In addition, Congress should make certain the size of Egypt’s aid package is commensurate with Cairo’s ability and willingness to support regional security and stability. Vigorous congressional oversight of the bilateral relationship is a must.

Pressure Works

One key lesson successive administrations have learned, but often chose to downplay or ignore, is that pressure works. The Bush Administration’s decision to withhold new aid to Egypt was an important factor in persuading the regime to acquit Saad Eddin Ibrahim in a 2003 retrial; further, pressure from the Trump Administration was instrumental in bringing about the December 2018 acquittal of 43 international pro-democracy NGO workers, including 16 Americans, convicted in a 2013 political show trial.

Likewise, persistent US pressure has helped change the way Egypt’s military does business. The Obama Administration’s 2014 elimination of “cash-flow” financing, which had enabled Egypt to pay for current purchases with future aid appropriations, combined with a decision to direct military aid to four specific categories, including counterterrorism and sustainment, has forced Egypt to reconsider high-end weapons systems and focus on more critical needs. As Springborg and Williams argue persuasively, this could help “significantly improve the Egyptian military’s capacity to face the most likely current and future threats.”

In short, the United States possesses significant influence necessary to help reorient Egyptian government policies and treatment of its citizens. Both the administration and Congress should act soon to bring the bilateral relationship into better political balance. Failure to do so does not serve either American or Egyptian interests.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here