The U.S. government’s capacity for self-delusion in the face of unpalatable realities in the Middle East is on full display as the Congressional appropriations process for the 2016 fiscal year grinds forward in Washington.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill removing human rights conditions on foreign assistance to Egypt. The United States provides $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military assistance.
Even when lawmakers have attached such conditions to the Egypt aid package, the administration has overridden them, citing the needs of national security. And in 2014, the one year when Congress attached the conditions and barred any waiver, lawmakers subsequently reversed their decision, giving the administration the authority to deliver the aid if it certified that doing so was “important to the national security interest of the United States.” Secretary of State John Kerry duly submitted a memorandum declaring said importance, and the aid package went through unencumbered.
The importance of the U.S.-Egypt relationship is well understood and little contested in Washington; it affects the peace treaty with Israel, Suez Canal privileges for U.S. forces, counterterrorism cooperation, and Egypt’s role as a regional leader. Less well explored is the relationship between human rights in Egypt and the national security interests of the United States.
Kerry’s memo presents an understated, but still damning, description of the denial of basic rights and freedoms in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt. Ultimately, the secretary baldly states that the “overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative.” This contradicts some of Secretary Kerry’s own positive remarks about developments in Egypt. But more significantly, the memorandum fails to connect human rights with U.S. interests.
This is inconsistent with the administration’s own rhetoric. In February, at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama said, “We must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy…When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied … when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”
By this measure, the Sisi government’s policies are feeding violent extremism and creating an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. The mounting political violence in Egypt also points to this conclusion, and, as Secretary Kerry’s memorandum rightly noted, what happens in Egypt has wide-ranging repercussions. How can any of this be in the national security interest of the United States?
It’s not. But members of Congress are content to ignore the fact that condoning repression and denial of rights in Egypt fuels regional instability and undermines global efforts against violent extremism. The administration persists in saying contradictory things: denial of human rights feeds violent extremism, but in order to combat violent extremism we must cooperate with, condone and enable governments that deny rights and freedoms to their people.
Rep. Kay Granger, who leads the House Appropriations Committee, perfectly expressed the aspirations of U.S. policymakers of both parties on relations with Egypt, and probably the region as a whole: “What we want to do with Egypt is return to the way it was.” That’s why her committee decided to drop human rights conditions from this year’s Egypt assistance bill.
Obviously, many people would like the Middle East to be less volatile, including the president who has said that the core U.S. interest is “just making sure that the region is working.” Wishing is not the same as helping to make it so. Until the U.S. government can find a way to integrate its legitimate concerns about human rights violations and repression that undermine regional stability and U.S. national interests into its alliances with key regional partners like Egypt, hopes for a more peaceful future will remain unrealized.
The Senate should restore robust human rights conditions to the Egypt aid package and specify that they should not be sidestepped by the invocation of a national security waiver. Aid conditionality alone is unlikely to persuade President Sisi to turn away from repression, but it is an important way for the U.S. government to send a clear message to Cairo and other authoritarian partners that their disregard of universal human rights standards are harmful to U.S. national interests.