It’s Time the U.S. Linked Egypt’s Military Aid to Real Reform on Human Rights

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It is time to alter the formula that grants the Egyptian government an almost-automatic yearly extension of funding without conditioning aid on tangible progress on human rights.

Ten years ago, Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish power in Egypt after protests brought millions to the streets of Cairo and Tahrir Square. This popular uprising was the epicenter of what many called the Arab Spring. Like its predecessor, the 1968 “Prague Spring,” the promise of swift liberalization of a repressive system eventually went unfulfilled.

A decade later, Egyptians are struggling under a brutally intolerant and ineffectual government led by former General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Al-Sisi’s violent rise to power and his despotic rule offers a sobering case study for those who once saw Egypt as the linchpin of the region’s democratic transition. Instead, as we look at Egypt today, we see a continuing political, social and economic crisis that demands greater international attention and action. Absent meaningful reform, its time for the US government to suspend military assistance.

This formula no longer makes sense. 

Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East with a population of close to 100 million people. It has a rich and proud history, and it is the cultural and educational capital of the region. It also serves as a bellwether. What happens in Egypt strongly influences developments elsewhere in the region. Today, Egypt is heading in the wrong direction.

Egyptians themselves bear considerable responsibility for failing to carve a democratic, rights-respecting path once they forced Mubarak to step down. But the United States and others in the international community also have dropped the ball, failing to adequately support local activists who have challenged the status quo or to exert needed pressure on al-Sisi to temper his authoritarian excesses.  

There are many factors that have led to the current crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 protests, as a caretaker military government took control, Western governments, including the U.S., prematurely urged national elections. After 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, there were no viable democratic political parties or personalities ready to lead. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the void. For decades, the Brotherhood had operated in the shadows, providing medical care, education and social services to Egypt’s poorest communities. But its leadership was not prepared to govern a vast nation, certainly not democratically.

Elected to power in June of 2012, the Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi was a failure, rightfully criticized for its dismissive attitude toward critics and its inability to use state power to meet the basic needs of Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological dogma prompted it to persecute Egypt’s significant Coptic Christian community, marginalize the rights of women and press for a new constitution that undermined press freedom, the rule of law and other core human rights protections.

All of these failures should have been challenged at the ballot box, but instead, General al-Sisi and his allies staged a violent coup d’etat in July 2013, killing more than 800 people. In the days and weeks that followed, al-Sisi’s security team arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists. Rather than publicly condemning the coup, U.S. officials stayed largely silent. Having just left the State Department where I was very involved in Egypt, I followed the State Department’s response with great interest. Trying to avoid the policy consequences of calling the military takeover a coup, which would have included a cutoff of assistance to the government, some of my former State Department colleagues internally offered this type of double-talk: “We could say it was a coup. We could say that it was not a coup. Or we could just not say.”

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Almost immediately after he took office in 2017, former President Trump befriended al-Sisi, part of Trump’s embrace of autocratic leaders around the world. Their fast friendship was on display when Trump met al-Sisi at the U.N. General Assembly in the fall of 2017. By then, al-Sisi’s security agencies had arrested tens of thousands of political opponents, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members, but also secular democratic activists, all of whom were denied a fair trial and many of whom were tortured. Al-Sisi also was targeting Egypt’s human-rights organizations, jailing their leaders or forcing them into exile. The few brave journalists who sought to cover government actions were themselves systematically targeted. Ignoring all of these transgressions and the plight of tens of millions of Egyptians suffering under al-Sisi’s brutal and incompetent rule, Trump joked that al-Sisi was “my favorite dictator.” 

This brings us to today. President Biden has signaled a new day, pledging to lead an administration under which the protection of human rights and promotion of democracy will again be core elements of U.S. foreign policy. These are welcome words, which Biden repeated during his televised town hall on Tuesday. His administration must tackle these issues, even as it faces multiple domestic challenges, most importantly the continuing pandemic and the economic fallout it has created. 

Egypt isn’t the only overseas challenge Biden faces. His administration must address chronically contentious relationships with China and Russia. It faces a military coup in Myanmar, renewed violence in Ethiopia, and escalating state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters in India. In the Middle East, Biden’s team must deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Syria and Iraq remain dangerously unstable.

Given these many pressing challenges, it will be tempting for the Biden Administration to maintain the status quo and continue to support al-Sisi’s government, despite its poor human-rights record. This would be a mistake. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has provided more than $50 billion in military and economic aid to Egyptian governments—money that has delivered few benefits to most Egyptians, while propping up despotic leaders. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, and if an objective of this massive aid package has been to encourage a democratic transformation, or to transform Egypt into a reliable security partner, it has failed to achieve its objectives.

It is time to alter the formula that grants the Egyptian government an almost-automatic yearly extension of funding without conditioning aid on tangible progress on human rights. This formula no longer makes sense. Ten years have now passed since those hopeful early days of what some called the Arab Awakening. Today, the U.S. government needs its own awakening, one that will lead to a serious commitment to protect human rights and promote democracy in Egypt.

Michael Posner is the Jerome Kohlberg professor of ethics and finance at NYU Stern School of Business and director of the Center for Business and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter @mikehposner.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.

Lead image: Ahmad Hammoud / Flickr