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Time to Rethink the U.S.-Egypt Relationship, Experts Tell Senate

While Trump embraces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, key lawmakers are losing their patience.

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When President Donald Trump welcomed Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House earlier this month, he offered a warm greeting meant to put years of ill will between Cairo and Washington behind. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump said.

But there are plenty of people in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill, who wish that wasn’t quite the case.

“It’s important for me that Egypt become successful,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), the chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs at a hearing Tuesday. His point? The uncritical U.S. embrace of Sisi and his controversial human rights record could make it harder to help Egypt fix what ails it.

All three experts who testified before the panel — Michele Dunne, a longtime Middle East expert at the State Department now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Elliott Abrams, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Tom Malinowski, formerly Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor — painted the U.S.-Egypt relationship as a relic of a bygone era. All agreed that, given the poor human rights and economic conditions in Egypt at present, the relationship should be reconsidered.

In the 1970s, when Washington helped nudge Moscow out of Egypt and built closer ties with Cairo, Abrams said, Egypt was the most influential Arab country in the region. That is no longer the case.

And the Egyptian military, which has gobbled up billions of dollars in U.S. assistance in recent decades, is still built to re-fight the 1973 war with Israel, rather than take on Islamist militants. What’s more, he said, ham-fisted security operations and brutal security services have not endeared the generals to regular folks. “Egyptian policy shifted sympathy from military to militants,” Abrams said.

In theory, Washington could encourage better behavior from Egypt, which, with its $1.3 billion in assistance, is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. But aid, especially if it goes for the military, can often just become a blank check, Dunne said. “The U.S. doesn’t have a way to ensure our assistance is not making the problem worse.”

To help fix that, she suggested investment in human development and education instead of huge cash transfers. Abrams argued aid should be reviewed so that it is clearly used to target terrorism. And Malinowski urged the subcommittee to ask the question, “Is our investment in Egypt appropriate? My strong view is that it is completely out of balance.” He, too, said the United States should review its aid program. It could get a lot more out of whack: Trump’s proposed budget would slash development aid and re-channel much foreign assistance through security budgets.

Some key lawmakers seem to be getting tired of Egypt, which has in the six years since the start of the Arab Spring struggled to achieve a stable economy or deliver many of the idealistic visions that animated protesters in Tahrir Square. Graham said just because Egypt has historically been stable does not mean it will always be. “We need to reshape the relationship in a way that’s sustainable,” he said, adding that the military cannot be the strongest player in the economy.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) received assurances that Egyptian-Israeli relations would not deteriorate in the absence of U.S. support, a line of questioning that seemed to suggest the United States could reconstruct its relationship toward Egypt without awakening the wrath of Israel’s staunch supporters.

Trump’s no-questions embrace of Sisi doesn’t just color U.S.-Egyptian relations, Malinowski said: The rest of the world has noticed, and comes up when the United States tries to discuss human rights. (Just a few days ago, video emerged of extrajudicial killings by members of the military in North Sinai.)

“The whole world sees the spectacle” of Sisi welcomed in the White House without a mention of human rights, said Malinowski, saying he was saddened by the spectacle.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin