Trump Blinks, and Egypt’s Sisi Wins
By giving in on aid, Washington just lost its leverage in Cairo.
Once again, Washington has backed down in a standoff with Cairo over military aid. On July 25, U.S. and Egyptian officials revealed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had released $195 million in military assistance, which had been frozen since last August. The move came despite the fact that Egypt had met none of the three conditions that the previous secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had attached to releasing the aid: the resolution of a 2013 trial involving 43 employees of various nongovernmental organizations, including 17 Americans, who were convicted on politicized charges of operating without licenses and receiving illegal foreign funding; the repeal or wholesale revision of Egypt’s draconian 2017 NGO law; and the discontinuation of Egypt’s diplomatic, military, and economic cooperation with North Korea.
This is not the first time the United States has blinked during a faceoff with the notoriously stubborn government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. In fact, I was the director for Egypt on the National Security Council staff in 2015 when the Obama administration ultimately lifted a hold on the delivery of several weapons systems even though Cairo had not met the administration’s more ambitious conditions. The decision led one former Obama official to lament to Politico, “We caved.”
In that case, Egypt’s regional allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—had lobbied hard against the hold. With each of them perceived to be more important to U.S. interests than Egypt, it is no wonder that their opinions bore weight with President Barack Obama. The discomfort of some U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense, with applying pressure on a putative “friend” likewise tipped the scales.
Such pressures surely weighed down on the State Department this time as well. But there’s one major difference: Whereas the Obama administration’s hold on weapons systems had not produced changes in Egyptian policy, the Trump administration’s pressure appears to be working. After stalling for five years, in April, Egypt’s highest appeals court finally ordered a retrial in the 2013 NGO case. Meanwhile, the government has demurred on implementing some provisions of the 2017 law regulating NGOs in Egypt, such as the imposition of a tax on foreign grants. Administration officials likewise assure me that Egypt has forced North Korea to reduce the size of its embassy in Cairo (which was previously the country’s largest in the Middle East) and has apparently halted military transactions with Kim Jong Un’s government.
By releasing military aid before Egypt fully meets the United States’ conditions, however, the Trump administration is inviting the Egyptian government to backslide. Not a single defendant in the NGO trial has been exonerated, and it is worth being skeptical that Egypt will feel compelled to do so now. As long as the 2017 NGO law remains on the books in its current form, meanwhile, the possibility that the Egyptian government will implement its worst provisions looms large. After all, Sisi broke his commitment to President Donald Trump not to pass the law during their Oval Office meeting last year. Finally, if past is prologue, Cairo will resume military cooperation with North Korea as soon as it is confident that Washington is looking the other way.
This is a dangerous time for the United States to lose all influence in Egypt. For the 11 months that U.S. military aid was on hold, Egypt’s political situation deteriorated markedly. In March, Sisi staged a farcical election in which every credible challenger was arrested or intimidated out of the race. Over the last few months, Sisi has continued locking up activists, Islamist and secular, but has started to target bloggers and other political commentators as well. Terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, have already exploited unprecedented repression to ramp up their recruiting efforts in Egyptian prisons, which were the breeding ground for many al Qaeda members a generation ago. Sisi’s polices could even lead to the very type of instability that has swelled refugee flows elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. Although withholding aid will not turn Egypt around overnight, sustained pressure could serve to protect and ultimately expand the space for Egyptian civil society, the health of which is crucial for resilience in the face of security and economic challenges.
With the Trump administration seemingly unwilling to hold Sisi accountable, Congress should try to take the reins where it can. It has shown some willingness to do so in recent years, with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations leading the charge for conditioning a portion of Egypt’s annual military aid package on human rights benchmarks. Unfortunately, Congress has also allowed the administration to easily bypass these conditions with a national security waiver.
Such waivers might make sense in a national security emergency, but there was no emergency in Egypt. The suspension of $195 million in military aid over the last 11 months had not wiped out Egypt’s ability to protect itself, or even had much effect at all on the country’s military capabilities. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was likewise holding firm, and Cairo had not blocked the United States from accessing the Suez Canal or Egyptian airspace. Withholding aid was nevertheless working, however, because Sisi values the symbolism of being a recipient of U.S. military assistance and because such funding is important to sustaining the Egyptian military’s patronage networks.
The Trump administration will likely continue to abuse the national security waiver, issuing another in the coming weeks to free up $195 million more in military aid before the end of fiscal year 2018. Trump may well even yield to ongoing Egyptian pressure to restore cash flow financing, a unique arrangement that permitted Egypt to purchase military equipment on the promise payment at some point in the future, which had been phased out under Obama. Egypt will gladly pocket both gains and give little in return.
For Congress, the appropriate response is clear: If it is truly concerned about Egypt’s current direction, harsh words won’t be enough. It should take Egypt aid decisions out of the president’s hands by denying his administration a national security waiver for human rights conditions on military aid to Egypt in future foreign assistance budget bills, beginning in fiscal year 2019. Unless Congress does so, conditions on aid to Egypt will be little more than noise and the country will continue to deteriorate—with all the harm that causes to its citizens, the region, and U.S. interests.