U.S. Unable to Monitor Military Aid to Egypt’s Anti-Terrorism Fight
Limits on U.S. visibility come as the Pentagon considers pulling out of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula altogether.
The United States lacks visibility on how Egypt is using U.S.-provided weapons in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a State Department review obtained by Foreign Policy, a blind spot that Congress worries could limit the Trump administration’s ability to investigate human rights abuses in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State.
The State Department said that Egypt has only given U.S. personnel infrequent access to monitor allegations of human rights abuses, and that Cairo has recently started to buy Russian and French weapons in greater numbers, limiting American visibility.
“As a result, it is very difficult to determine whether U.S.-origin defense articles were used in a particular operation or maneuver,” the report said, adding that U.S. personnel do not have consistent on-the-ground access to Sinai. “The U.S. government generally lacks sufficient information to directly link specific U.S.-origin equipment to alleged violations of international human rights or international humanitarian law by Egyptian security forces.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has lavished praise on his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, calling the Egyptian leader “my favorite dictator” and continuing American military aid apace at $1.3 billion, despite internal protests earlier in his administration and assessments that Cairo’s trajectory toward reforms has been slowed by the former general’s authoritarian tendencies.
But Egypt’s long-standing status as the second-largest recipient of U.S. security assistance has come under fire from Capitol Hill in recent years, which has urged the Obama and Trump administrations to hold Egypt’s feet to the fire for human rights abuses in Sinai, the detention of American citizens, and a law that restricts nongovernmental organizations’ activities.
A State Department assessment released last year found that the Egyptian government “committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” sometimes with impunity, as Sisi sought to redouble counter-drug operations and crack down on weapons smuggling in areas of North Sinai that border the Gaza Strip. In 2019, Human Rights Watch said that it had documented 20 cases of extrajudicial killings of detainees in North Sinai in recent years.
An aide to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has held up $105 million in U.S. military aid to Egypt since 2018, said the findings from the report show that Cairo’s counterterrorism campaign is failing and that the administration has little ability to track whether State and Defense Department-provided arms are causing civilian deaths, a potential violation of U.S. law.
“What’s happening there is an example of where our weapons are being used to carry out a strategy that isn’t working and where we don’t know if they are harming civilians,” the aide told Foreign Policy. “They have consistently acknowledged that they don’t know with confidence how our military aid is being used. The State Department says they investigate reports of human rights abuses. How do they do that, and where’s the evidence that anything is done about it?”
The State Department said in the report that Egypt remains “generally” in compliance with U.S. programs that track the use of American military equipment.
The so-called Multinational Force and Observers—charged with enforcing the four-decade-old peace treaty—is limited by logistical bottlenecks put in place by Egyptian troops, according to a military official who once served in the area.
For instance, an MFO airfield that’s an arm of the Sharm el-Sheikh airport is stuck behind layers of Egyptian security that require American troops to sign off with their hosts to get inside. “Their stuff is so closed off,” the official, who is not authorized to speak about the situation on the ground and requested anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “We have to sit at the gate and wait for the Egyptians to show up.”
The Egyptian government has also imposed travel restrictions on civilians living in North Sinai and has not allowed media trips into the area since 2018, the State Department reported in an annual human rights review released last year. Some experts believe that the return of press and independent monitors would provide a bigger deterrent to violence than beefing up the Multinational Force and Observers.
“The real issue is we can’t get any independent monitors in there,” said Allison McManus, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington think tank focused on U.S. relations with the Muslim world. “There’s no press.”
But back in Washington, the debate is heading toward further U.S. disengagement. While Egypt is limited in the number of troops it can keep in the Sinai region under a 1979 peace treaty with Israel signed toward the end of the Carter administration, the status quo appears to be shifting as the Pentagon hopes to refocus U.S. military muscle on dealing with China.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Defense Secretary Mark Esper is looking to draw down the contingent of 400 U.S. troops from Sinai as part of a global review of the Pentagon’s presence, as Islamic State-led terrorist attacks in the region have declined, according to official statistics. Over the course of the first 11 months of 2019, the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula launched 282 attacks that killed 269 people, mostly Egyptian troops, which was down from 377 such deaths in 2018 and 742 the year before.
Some lawmakers have pressured the Trump administration to curtail $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Cairo, citing Sisi’s flagging human rights record.
Yet even after the jailed American citizen Mustafa Kassem died in January and as several other U.S. nationals languish in Egyptian custody, the Trump administration has been reluctant to punish Sisi, floating a $300 million military aid cut reported by Foreign Policy in March that has yet to be enacted.
“You might call them tyrants; you might call them authoritarians. But, there’s a fundamental difference,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Leahy, a leading Senate critic of Egypt, in April 2019. “There’s no doubt the Egyptians have been an important security partner, helping us take down terror threats in the Sinai that have reduced risks to the United States of America.”
But advocacy groups that have pushed back against U.S. military aid to Egypt are worried that the admission may not mean much if the Trump administration doesn’t act to limit security assistance.
“It makes sense because Egypt has tried to block both U.S. officials and the press from what’s going on in the Sinai,” said William Hartung, the director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy and a co-author of the recent report analyzing U.S. security assistance to Egypt. “The fact that they’re acknowledging it is worth something, but the question is, are they going to do something about it?”
Correction, June 17, 2020: U.S. personnel do not have frequent access to Sinai. A previous version of this article did not accurately reflect the U.S. presence.
The Multinational Force and Observers is charged with enforcing the peace treaty. A previous version of this article misstated its mission.