How to Get Egypt’s Generals Back on Our Side

Hint: pay them. And it's going to take a lot more than the $1.3 billion the U.S. government sends Cairo each year.

Egypt reinforces its armies in Sinai
SINAI, EGYPT - OCTOBER 27: Military vehicles and soldiers of Egyptian Armed Forces are seen as Egypt reinforces its 2. and 3. armies in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt on October 27, 2014. (Photo by Pool/Egyptian Armed Forces/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Almost as soon as the nasheed, a religious chant, begins, an improvised explosive device destroys a military vehicle in the distance. The scene repeats again, in super-slow motion. The nasheed continues, encouraging jihadists to raise up their swords, fight for god, and make their way to paradise. In the next scene, terrorists assault a small military outpost nestled amid palm trees, shooting their way through the rubble and killing a soldier who returns fire. A tank comes into view, its turret swinging wildly, raking the area with machine gun fire ineffectively, and then beating a hasty retreat. The footage then shifts to the gruesome aftermath: a burned-out tank, a disabled armored personnel carrier, and dead, mangled soldiers.

The attack on Oct. 24, purportedly captured in a video released by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihadist group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in November, killed 33 Egyptian soldiers and officers. It was the worst loss of life for Egyptian military forces since the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula kicked into high gear in the summer of 2013. The military has paid a high price in its fight against the jihadists: Over the past year, 190 Egyptian conscripts and officers have been killed in terrorist attacks. Added to the problem in the Sinai is the gathering threat from the west, as Libya implodes. In time, Egypt may very well face insurgencies on two fronts.

Nothing the Egyptians have done to pacify the Sinai has worked, and some of it — scorched-earth responses to terror attacks, evacuating entire villages — runs against the basic tenets of an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Yet unlike Iraq, where the United States has deployed 3,000 soldiers and has been pummeling the Islamic State with almost continuous airstrikes, Egypt requires something entirely different from Washington to win its battle against the jihadists — money and trust.

The caricature of the Egyptian military leadership is a group of officers single-mindedly focused on procuring M1A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets from the United States. There is, of course, some truth to this. For the better part of the last decade, American officials have been nudging the Egyptians to take a fresh look at their military doctrine and alter it to what the Pentagon calls “21st-century threats,” such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, U.S. defense officials have not gotten far in this effort: State Department cables released by WikiLeaks recount how Egyptian defense officials essentially stonewalled their American counterparts on the issue. In keeping with the old cliché, Egypt’s military establishment seems like it would prefer to fight its last war — which took place 41 years ago.

For all of Cairo’s apparent stubbornness, however, their position is driven by more than an irrational and unquenchable desire for new military toys. As one officer asked during a private discussion about Egypt’s military doctrine and force structure: “What kind of military would we be if we did not have tanks and planes? We don’t want to be a gendarmerie.”

No doubt he was deflecting a subject Egypt’s officers would otherwise prefer not to discuss, but he was also revealing their profound mistrust of the United States and its goals in Egypt. After more than a decade of tension between Washington and Cairo, the officers want to be reassured of American support, of which there are no better symbols than brand new F-16s, Apache helicopters, and tanks. Until Washington does something to ameliorate this suspicion, it will get nowhere with the Egyptians on issues of the Sinai and border security, harming the interests of both countries.

It is hard to come to grips with the fact that Egyptian officers do not trust Washington. Since the mid-1970s, American taxpayers have spent $40 billion on the Egyptian Defense Ministry. When the Egyptians deployed 35,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to take part in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, President George H. W. Bush’s administration (along with Arab creditors) wrote off or cancelled $20 billion in Egyptian debt. Washington also convinced the Paris Club to forgive another $10 billion in debt, or half of what the Egyptians owed to European countries, the United States, Canada, and Japan. During Egypt’s fight against terrorists in the 1990s, Washington stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cairo.

Even on the sole occasion the United States has sought to punish Egypt, it has done so in a way that carefully avoided compromising Egyptian security. President Barack Obama’s administration may have held up the delivery of 20 F-16s, 10 Apache helicopters, 125 M1A1 tanks kits, and 20 Harpoon missiles in the months following the coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, but this had a marginal effect on the Egyptians’ ability to fight jihadists in the Sinai. The Obama administration has thus far released Apaches, but the F-16s, tank kits, and Harpoon missiles remain in the dock. Even if this equipment was critical to counterinsurgency operations, which is debatable, the Egyptians already had plenty of it — Cairo boasts the fourth-largest inventory of F-16s in the world (a total of 220), almost three dozen Apaches, and a sizable fleet of main battle tanks.

Notwithstanding Washington’s past support, the Egyptian military has good reasons to be suspicious of the United States. First, although it is common for virtually everyone to refer to U.S. military assistance as “generous,” it has actually been painstakingly slow and increasingly expensive for the Egyptians. The annual $1.3 billion payout is the same amount Washington has been appropriating to Cairo since 1987, but it is worth less than half of what it had been originally owing to inflation. As a result, the aid no longer buys what it once did. Second, although by all measures the level of strategic cooperation between Egypt and Israel is the best since the 1979 peace treaty, the Egyptians have historically chafed at the fact that the military equipment Washington makes available to them is inferior to what the Israelis can buy. For example, Israeli and Egyptian F-16s may look a lot alike, but the advanced avionics and other bells and whistles “under the hood” of Israel’s jets make them more capable.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of military aid, Egyptian military officers cannot figure out why — even well before the 2011 uprising that brought Hosni Mubarak’s long rule to an end — they were being blamed for Egypt’s authoritarian government. Beginning with President George W. Bush’s administration, the senior command (and the entire Egyptian elite, for that matter) came to believe that the United States was no longer committed to what was then the prevailing regime. When the uprising happened and the United States accommodated itself to the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victories, it merely confirmed these suspicions. President Barack Obama’s decision to delay some military aid after then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled Morsi in the July 2013 coup — not suspend it completely, as U.S. law required — hardened the officers’ views of Washington even more.

Yes, the officers are refusing to recognize the fact that they have been the beneficiaries and primary defenders of a non-democratic system. But it is also not lost on them that while Americans recoil at the idea that Washington’s own policies have produced radicalization and made America a target for terrorists, they routinely lecture the Egyptians that their policies have wrought death and destruction. There is, of course, a repression-radicalization dynamic that contributes to violence that officials in Cairo willfully overlook, but the hypocrisy and self-righteous indignation of American interlocutors suggests to them that Washington’s commitment to Egypt is no longer what it once was. It’s hard not to come to this conclusion, given that the foundations of the relationship either no longer exist — containing the Soviet Union and using Egypt as a base in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf — or are not as pressing as in previous decades, as with ensuring Egypt-Israel peace. The changing relationship with Washington, in turn, is driving the Egyptian Ministry of Defense’s tighter coordination with the Israelis and Emiratis — as well as its more worrying flirtation with the Russians.

The U.S.-Egypt relationship will continue to change — the logic that drove it over the course of the last three decades is no longer as strong as it once was, and the profoundly repressive way in which President Sisi is ruling has further strained ties with Washington. Yet for the time being, there are important security matters that affect the interest of both countries: unimpeded traffic in the Suez Canal, the suppression of jihadist groups in Sinai, and the maintenance of peace with and security in Israel. All of these require trust between Washington and Cairo. And the only way the Egyptians are going to be convinced that the United States stands firmly with them in their fight against terrorism is through more money.

If this sounds perverse, that’s because it is. In order to get the Egyptians to deal with the problem of terrorism in a more effective way — something that is in Cairo’s interest — Washington will have to appropriate more money to Egypt for military assistance. Thus far, funds that are used for counterterrorism come out of the $1.3 billion aid package, which reduces the amount available for big-ticket items like tanks and planes. In a crude way of demonstrating Washington’s commitment to see the Egyptians through this current security challenge, the United States should add funds to the military assistance program devoted specifically to counterinsurgency technology, training, and advising. This way, the tanks and planes are safe, and Egyptian officers’ fears of their army being transformed into a gendarmerie will be allayed.

There’s a coalition of counterterror, pro-Israel, and defense industry interests in Washington that would be happy to go back to business as usual in Egypt. That said, the idea of doling out additional millions to Cairo is going to be hard to swallow. How do you give more money to a leadership that has jailed tens of thousands, killed between 1,000 and 2,500, restricts freedom of expression, and forces dissidents into self-imposed exile, much of it in the name of counterterrorism? Critics will argue that offering more assistance to the Egyptian military is worse than a return to the U.S.-Egypt relationship under Mubarak. It is a fair point: In a way, it would look like Washington is rewarding Sisi for his repression.

At the same time, however, advocates of using security assistance as an instrument of behavior modification tend to give short shrift to the political dynamics — Sisi’s popularity, the demobilization of large parts of the Egyptian population, strong Egypt-Israel security cooperation, the threat from the Islamic State, and an American administration aware of the limits of democracy promotion — that will likely render the approach a failure, even counterproductive.

There is no easy answer to these dilemmas, but it is important to recognize that Washington’s ability to modify Egypt’s behavior has proven over and over again to be limited. In addition to democracy promotion, the United States has made the fight against terrorism its defining foreign policy issue of the last 13 years. It is here where the United States can actually do something useful in Egypt — if Washington is willing to pay a price for it.

Pool/Egyptian Armed Forces/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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