Commentary: The U.S. is Right to Restore Aid to Egypt

Reports of Islamic State’s demise are premature. While its core territory in Syria and Iraq is nearly gone, it maintains at least eight branches operating from Nigeria to Pakistan. Of these, the group’s presence in Egypt’s strategic Sinai Peninsula is arguably most worrisome, as sustained operations from there could undermine Egypt’s internal security, threaten regional allies such as Israel and Jordan, and disrupt shipping through the Suez Canal.

Last week the United States restored the $195 million in military aid that it had withheld from Egypt because of the country’s human rights record and its ties to North Korea. This was the right move.

Egypt has long been one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid, accepting $71.6 billion in bilateral military and economic aid between 1948 and 2011 – the largest amount of any country in that time period, other than Israel. The United States has given Egypt about $1.3 billion per year in military aid since 1987. Last August, the United States decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay an additional $195 million because of concerns about human rights under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi was elected president after he led the army in ousting Mohammad Mursi. His government then enacted a law restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations – part of a wider crackdown on dissent. Under Sisi scores of websites have been taken down and journalists and opponents have been arrested. In a 2017 State Department memo to Congress, U.S. officials wrote that the “overall human rights climate in Egypt continues to deteriorate, with the government enacting legislation that conflicts with its human rights obligations, including the right of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and due process guarantees.” In March voters elected Sisi to a second term, in an election that saw all major opposition candidates cut short their campaigns, citing intimidation.

Yet despite Sisi’s record on human rights, it is still in the United States’ interests to support Egypt. Doing so will help hold the line against IS and prevent Egypt from turning to a country like Russia for security and economic cooperation. Washington should adopt a two-track approach with Egypt, as it has historically done with Turkey, advancing security issues at the same time it pushes for improvements in human rights and democracy.

Egypt has long been a critical U.S. security partner because of its control of the Suez Canal and its border with Israel. When U.S. forces are engaged in the region, Egypt provides expedited access for U.S. naval vessels transiting the Suez Canal and overflight rights for U.S. military aircraft, both of which are crucial for the United States’ ability to project power across the Middle East. Its role as a linchpin of regional stability has grown with multiple forces roiling the Middle East in recent years. Amid Iranian and Russian entrenchment in the Levant, and the recent rise in IS and Hamas operations, Egypt has remained squarely in the camp of secular and reformist Middle Eastern countries trying to stop the spread of Islamist extremism.

Cairo is working with Israel to contain IS in the Sinai and Hamas in Gaza, and the countries’ navies coordinate regularly on Mediterranean security issues. I met with Sisi in May, when I visited Egypt as part of a delegation sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, and he was keen to emphasize the common security interests Cairo shares with Washington and Jerusalem, and his desire to advance both partnerships.

Egypt’s internal security is threatened by a relentless IS-affiliated insurgency in Sinai. In November the group attacked a Sinai mosque, killing more than 300 people. Egypt also faces the ever-present challenge of preventing the conflict in Libya from spilling over its western border. (While Cairo and Washington both want a stable Libya, the Sisi government is backing Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a military strongman who was once a CIA asset; the United States is supporting his rival and UN-backed Libyan government.)

Further instability in Egypt would be disastrous for its nearly 100 million citizens, the region and the United States. Regardless of which might come first – the collapse of Egypt’s economy or the spread of Islamist insurgency – the other would surely follow.

The result would be new extremist safe havens, millions of desperate Egyptians seeking to flee to Europe, an existential threat to Israel, the disruption of the Suez Canal upon which global economic stability depends and the potential for the United States to get involved in yet another Middle East quagmire.

Recent American support for Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts in Sinai and the resumption of Bright Star joint military exercises are both steps in the right direction. So is the United States’ recent decision to provide Egypt with its fully-authorized $1.3 billion in foreign military financing.

Egypt needs this assistance to replenish military capabilities expended combatting IS in Sinai, and to respond effectively to any IS resurgence. It will also help improve bilateral military interoperability and promote Egypt’s continued phaseout of Soviet-era weaponry.

U.S. assistance should also include greater technical support for U.S. equipment that Egypt uses in the Sinai and more bilateral military exchanges, including sharing U.S. lessons-learned from counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

These policy changes can bolster Washington’s influence in Cairo, helping to disrupt Russia’s shaping of a Middle East security environment reminiscent of the Cold War. They can also capitalize on a fleeting opportunity to defeat the scourge of IS by advancing an important relationship and promoting economic development and democracy in a vital Middle East partner.

Originally appeared in Reuters on July 30, 2018.

This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.