A riot police officer fires tear gas during clashes with protesters in Cairo
Over the past two years, Egyptian President Abdel al-Sisi has overseen a systematic crackdown on all those seen as a threat to his rule, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Following his seizure of power through military coup in July of 2013, Sisi went on to win a national election, garnering almost 95% of the vote in what was deemed a “free but not always very fair” contest. Despite his subsequent campaign of repression, which has included mass death sentences and the aggressive censorship of journalists, the U.S. has continued to pursue closer ties with post-coup Egypt. Rather than making aid-delivery contingent upon respecting basic human rights, the U.S. has instead begun restoring aid to Hosni Mubarak-era levels after an initial reduction.
Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the U.S. has sought a close relationship with Egypt as part of broader Middle East strategy. Given this historical relationship, which has included massive aid disbursements, the U.S. should be able to pressure Sisi into making genuine reforms aimed at respecting freedom of speech and other fundamental human rights. After supporting the autocratic Hosni Mubarak regime for decades, with its own human rights record strongly criticized following recent revelations of torture in leaked CIA files, working with the extremely popular Sisi to improve respect for human rights in Egypt presents the U.S. with the opportunity to improve America’s image in the region while also assisting the average Egyptian. If Sisi is not forced to liberalize his regime, then there is a distinct possibility that, like Mubarak before him, Sisi will become an entrenched autocrat who violently silences dissent.
Following the coup against former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi amidst massive protests in June and July of 2013, the U.S. government slashed hundreds of millions of dollars out of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, $1.3 billion of which was military aid. While the exact amount of money withheld from Egypt was not published, the transfer of an estimated $500-600 million in aid and loans is believed to have been halted. Additionally, a number of F-16’s, Apache helicopters, M-1/A-1 tank kits, and other armaments previously ordered by Egypt were not delivered. While this amounts to nearly third of total U.S. aid being suspended, it is important to note that the U.S. itself did not label the actions by Sisi and the Egyptian military a coup.
By not labeling the military’s removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected, albeit unpopular, president by the Egyptian military a coup, the U.S. was able to circumvent American laws preventing the delivery of aid to governments that come into power through coups. In January of 2014, Congress passed a spending bill allowing the Obama administration to bypass the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars aid to countries that have experienced a coup, on the condition that Egypt undertakes steps to democratize. This spending bill opened the way for the U.S. to give Egypt roughly $975 million in aid once a constitution was passed, which was accomplished shortly thereafter. While a constitution was approved with an overwhelming percentage of the vote, voter turnout was under 38% and there were reports of opposition members being detained during the vote, thereby delegitimizing the document.
Despite these authoritarian actions and the Sisi regime’s overall lack of legitimacy, it was not long before the U.S. began unfreezing its military and economic aid to Egypt. While the U.S. has stated that it will not provide the same level of aid to the current regime that was provided before the coup until it is satisfied with the state of democracy in Egypt, its actions say otherwise. The U.S. announced a week after Sisi’s election that the U.S. would begin sending Cairo a a further $575 million in military aid in addition to the $200 million in economic aid that was already being supplied.
Even as deliveries resumed last June, an Egyptian court upheld death sentences in 183 out of 683 cases against members of the Muslim Brotherhood pertaining to an attack on a police station in August of 2013 that left several people dead. Human Rights Watch alleges that since Morsi’s ousting, over 1,300 people have been killed during protests, over 3,500 Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested, and security forces regularly engage in extrajudicial killings and torture.
Furthermore, contrary to Sisi’s claims regarding freedom of speech, a number of journalists have been arrested for criticizing the government. By labeling any media that criticizes the military or government as aiding terrorism, the government has been able to justify its extensive suppression of freedom of speech. Most prominently, three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested in December of 2013 on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in jail. Only after 400 days of incarceration was the first of the journalists, an Australian national, set free unconditionally following international outcry. The other two journalists, one of whom holds dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship, have been granted a retrial.
While the U.S. and other countries have criticized Egypt over its human rights record, no concrete steps have been taken to alter Egypt’s behavior. It is imperative that the U.S. pressures Egypt into respecting the basic rights of its citizens. All aid must become conditional on Egypt’s meeting of international human rights standards which will require unity of action by numerous western powers. While the U.S. continues to withhold the military hardware Egypt ordered, France has eagerly filled the procurement gap. Additionally, the economic difficulties of Egypt must be addressed if civil unrest is to subside. The economy remains crippled by high unemployment and the loss of tourism, investment, and subsidies that occurred following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.
With the budget deficit taking up a greater percentage of GDP than in any other emerging economy, the short-term economic outlook is grim. The U.S. should not only add further conditions to its aid, but it should also increase the proportion of non-military aid for such efforts as infrastructure modernization. It should also act with international organizations to organize large loan packages that can be further used to help revitalize the Egyptian economy and help ensure human rights, rather than allowing such states as Saudi Arabia to bankroll Egypt’s economy. By increasing nonmilitary aid, the U.S. will be able to help stabilize the fragile Egyptian economy while placing significant pressure on the government to better respect human rights.
Matt McGee is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in China & Asia-Pacific Studies and Government.