By Daniel Hurley
The U.S. Department of State this week lifted restrictions on $195 million in military aid that was previously frozen by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017 (1). Originally imposed to protest Cairo’s facilitation of North Korean illicit arms sales and Egypt’s abysmal human rights record, the financial restrictions, according to current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, needed to be lifted now due to Egypt’s response to specific U.S. concerns—concerns that have not been specified by the administration.
Providing Egypt with military aid and other sources of financial assistance is routine for the U.S. Between 1946 and 2016, Egypt received $78.3 billion in bilateral foreign assistance from American taxpayers (2). Specifically since the ratification of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty, the U.S. has provided vast amounts of military aid to Egypt in an effort to support regional stability. With this aid, Egypt has mostly purchased large-scale conventional military equipment, including fighter jets and battle tanks. For fiscal year 2019, President Trump has requested $1.381 billion in foreign assistance to Egypt.
What makes this transfer of funds unusual, however, is that aid is being provided despite the fact that one of the main goal’s for restricting the funds in the first place—to pressure Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to improve his record of human rights—has yet to be realized according to some experts. While past administrations, including those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have made improvements in Egypt’s domestic human rights conditions a precondition for the allocation of military and economic foreign assistance, the Trump administration is providing aid while the Egyptian government has not met the original “human rights” precondition.
Although the Egyptian government has apparently addressed some of the human rights concerns advanced by the State Department, the extent to which these concerns have been meet does not warrant the release of these funds. The Trump administration’s call for Sisi to overturn the conviction of 43 employees (including 17 American citizens) of international groups that promote democracy, for instance, has been addressed with Sisi’s minimalist decision to schedule a retrial rather than dismiss the charges altogether.
Frankly, over the last year, Sisi’s government has cracked down more heavily on nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and political opponents operating inside Egypt. In the period preceding the March 2018 presidential election, for example, critics of Sisi were arrested without a credible, legal-based justification (3). Under the guise of a counterterrorism strategy, Egyptian security services also blocked 64 news websites in June 2017, alleging that they did not align with the state media’s narrative of events. Adding to this track record, 47,000 nongovernmental organizations have been subjected to strict operational guidelines due to the enactment of a controversial 2017 law. The law restricts NGO activity to “developmental and social work” and threatens up to five years of incarceration for non-compliance (4). Effectively, NGOs in Egypt are virtually inoperable under this law.
Context & Consequences
Given President Trump’s record of complimenting autocrats in an effort to build bilateral strategic partnerships, the fact that the funds were released is not surprising. During his first meeting with Sisi as president, Trump praised Sisi for doing a “tremendous job under trying circumstance” (5). The “trying circumstance” that Trump referred to is the ongoing, disruptive, and ineffective “brute force” strategy that Sisi has been undertaking in an effort to root out armed rebel groups occupying the Sinai Peninsula. According to residents of the Sinai, this strategy is causing more danger to their lives than proving to secure their safety.
With regards to the U.S. administration’s approach to dealing with the threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile program, Trump again used praise to achieve national security interests. In a June 2018 interview with Fox News, Trump expressed admiration for Chairman Kim Jong-un’s intelligence, strategic way of thinking, and personality (6). Based on reports generated by international human rights watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the North Korean government has imprisoned thousands of political dissenters, forced women to have abortions repeatedly, condoned rape, and turned a blind eye to acts of gender-based abuses. Yet, despite the well-documented track record of the North Korean regime abusing human rights, Trump has chosen to laud the regime in an effort to attain strategic ends.
By choosing to sideline human rights concerns in an effort to address national security interests, the Trump administration has effectively given Egypt’s government a green light to continue to abuse human rights in the same way they have for years, since the U.S. apparently is comfortable with a policy of minimal (if tangible at all) improvements in domestic human rights conditions in exchange for strengthening bilateral military and economic partnerships.
This is a dangerous policy, for two reasons. Primarily, such a disregard for human rights in a national security strategy weakens the leverage, and standing, that the U.S. has in international negotiations. By condoning the actions of human rights violators, allies of the U.S. may be reluctant to pursue joint international efforts for fear of domestic backlash as a result of their nation’s leaders cooperating with a country that underestimates the value of human rights diplomacy. Such polarization among allies poses a threat to the longevity of Western alliances and the value of common strategic partnerships.
On the other hand, repeated displays of U.S. disregard for international human rights feeds into the narrative of American adversaries that the U.S. is a hypocritical state on the international stage. While the U.S. expresses a deep commitment to securing and advancing human rights in speeches and decrees, it does not so in its national policies and global initiatives—so adversaries say. While this argument is true and false to an extent, that fact that the U.S. is supporting Egypt’s repressive regime fuels the “true” narrative. For a country that prides itself on promoting respect for human rights at home and abroad, the State Department’s decision is not conducive to the cause.
Providing no financial assistance to Egypt is not a strategically intelligent decision for the U.S. to make. Egypt is an essential partner of the U.S. in the Middle East on several fronts, most notably now as a key broker of peace between Fatah, Hamas, and the Israelis as both the U.S. and Egypt seek a resolution to internal Palestinian conflict and the greater Arab-Israeli war. Moreover, financial assistance has helped Egypt develop from the beginning, whether by reducing infant mortality rates through improvement in healthcare facilities, increasing the number of literate children through investments in school resources, or assisting Egyptian youth in finding jobs through workforce training. These advancements have helped foster stability in Egypt, even though this is a continuous effort.
What I would suggest the Trump administration do going forward, however, is be more bold when it comes to pressuring the Egyptian government to meet its demands that concern improvements in human rights. A tit-for-all relationship, whereby the U.S requires the price of the car to be paid in full before the keys are given, the Egyptian’s give a down payment instead, and the U.S. gives the keys as a show of satisfaction for the admirable effort is not effective policy.
Daniel Hurley is a senior at The College of New Jersey where he studies Political Science.
(1) Walsh, Declan. "Despite Egypt’s Dismal Human Rights Record, U.S. Restores Military Aid." New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/26/world/middleeast/egypt-human-rights-us-aid.html. Accessed 27 July 2018.
(2) Sharp, Jeffrey M. “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations.” Congressional Research Service. 2018. PDF file.
(3) “Egypt: Intensifying Crackdown Under Counterterrorism Guise.” Human Rights Watch, 15 July. 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/15/egypt-intensifying-crackdown-under-counterterrorism-guise.
(4) Aboulenein, Ahmed. “Egypt issues NGO law, cracking down on dissent.” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-rights/egypt-issues-ngo-law-cracking-down-on-dissent-idUSKBN18P1OL. Accessed 28 July 2018.
(5) “Trump praises Sisi, says he hopes to visit Egypt.” Reuters, 21 May. 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-saudi-egypt-idUSKBN18H08H.
(6) Pappas , Alex. “Trump praises Kim Jon Un as ‘strong, ‘funny’, ‘smart’, and a ‘great negotiator’ in Hannity interview.” Fox News, 12 Jun. 2018, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2018/06/12/trump-praises-kim-jong-un-as-strong-funny-smart-and-great-negotiator-in-hannity-interview.html.