Two Egyptian Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters participate in a combined arms live fire exercise during Bright Star 2017, Sept. 20, 2017, at Mohamed Naguib Military Base, Egypt.

Two Egyptian Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters participate in a combined arms live fire exercise during Bright Star 2017, Sept. 20, 2017, at Mohamed Naguib Military Base, Egypt. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Michael Battles

Time to Rethink Security Aid to Egypt

More than $40 billion over three decades has bought only dubious benefits to U.S. security.

For too long, Cairo and Washington have treated U.S. security assistance to Egypt as if it were an entitlement program, to be provided regardless of the conduct of the Egyptian government. Egypt has received more than $40 billion over the past three decades, more than almost any other country, and with only dubious benefits to U.S. security. It’s long past time to reconsider this assistance, and under what conditions that aid should be provided. 

Since overthrowing a democratically elected president in 2013, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has built the most repressive state in his country's modern history. His regime has engaged in a systematic pattern of gross human rights violations, from gunning down peaceful protesters in the streets to jailing tens of thousands of political opponents, including journalists, academics, and human rights defenders. The al-Sisi government has also severely restricted the ability of independent non-governmental organizations to operate, all but eliminated a free and independent press, and perpetuated tensions between Muslims and Christians. These repressive practices are damaging in their own right; they also undercut Egypt’s ability to be a reliable security partner.

Instead of using U.S. assistance to develop the military’s capabilities and advance shared national security interests, the Egyptian government has misused the aid for patronage and prestige. It has also killed thousands in an aggressive, undisciplined, and counterproductive counter-terror mission in the northern Sinai. And Egypt and the United States are supporting opposite sides in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, even as the al-Sisi regime and continues to do business with North Korea. The regime has also cozied up to Russia by conducting joint military exercises, committing to purchasing Russian combat aircraft, and allowing Russian special forces to operate inside Egypt’s borders as a staging ground for their intervention in Libya.

As Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, has noted, the Egyptian military is, “utterly, disastrously incompetent in addition to being cruel…They do absolutely nothing to benefit Egyptian security or ours.” 

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For his part, President Trump has embraced Egypt’s authoritarian regime, ignoring al-Sisi’s abysmal human rights record and overstating the country’s effectiveness in fighting terrorism. He has called al-Sisi “my favorite dictator.”

A new report by the Center for International Policy and the Project on Middle East Democracy proposes major reforms in U.S. security assistance to Egypt. As noted in the report, the U.S. has considerable leverage over Egypt, if it chooses to use it, because the bulk of the equipment in its army and air force is of U.S. origin, including the majority of its armored vehicles, attack helicopters, combat aircraft, and military transport planes.

The changes outlined below will not transform Egypt into a fully functioning democracy, but they can help moderate some of its most egregious practices.

First and foremost, annual U.S. military aid to Egypt to should by at least $300 million from its current $1.3 billion to show the Egyptian government that this assistance is not an entitlement but is tied to its conduct. The reduced military aid could be part of an increased U.S. investment in programs designed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, the U.S. should impose strict conditions on security assistance to Egypt, with no opportunity for a presidential waiver — a provision that has been used in the past to let the regime off the hook for its unacceptable behavior. Targeted areas of concern should include an end to torture in Egypt’s prison system; easing of restrictions on journalists, human rights defenders, and other NGOs; and an end to the killing, torture, and displacement of civilians in the anti-terror campaign in the Sinai.

A third aspect of a revised security assistance policy should be an increase in transparency over how U.S. aid is being used. This should include allowing journalists and U.S. officials into the Sinai to monitor the actions of the Egyptian military and a clear accounting of how U.S. funds are being spent as a guard against corruption.

Finally, the U.S. should restrict aid to Egypt to items that are most appropriate to addressing the most urgent threats to its national security. Those priorities should include maintenance of equipment relevant to fighting terrorism, and bolstering border, maritime, and Sinai security. Recent arms sales notifications indicate that the Egyptian government prefers to purchase big ticket items like M1 tanks that sustain patronage networks rather than using U.S. largesse to enhance their capabilities to address the country’s legitimate security challenges.

In the age of COVID-19, it’s time to consider substantial changes in U.S. domestic and foreign policies. Revising our approach to security aid to Egypt should be one of those changes.