July 30, 2018

IntelBrief: The U.S. Pays For Egyptian Suppression 

President Donald Trump walks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House in Washington (AP Photo/Evan Vucci).
  • On July 26, the U.S. lifted a freeze on $195 million in military aid for Egypt that it suspended last year over human rights concerns.
  • It is unclear what Egypt did to address U.S. concerns, as the Sisi government has actually grown more authoritarian.
  • Freedoms of expression and the press are increasingly restricted and international aid groups are still being targeted.
  • The U.S. appears to have made another short-sighted foreign policy decision favoring stability over liberty.


In the Middle East, when given the choice of supporting nascent democracies versus supporting authoritarian leaders who are self-avowed ‘security partners’ in the fight against terrorism, the U.S. often chooses the latter. Nowhere is this choice seen more clearly than with Egypt. The U.S. has favored authoritarian-enforced stability over liberty in Egypt for all but two of the last 37 years. Since the October 6, 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the U.S. has backed two ‘strongman’ military leaders—Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a coup in July 2013. The brief rule by Mohammed Morsi was chaotic for Egyptians and of deep concern to neighbors who feared the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in their own countries; in the end, the U.S. chose to support a Sisi-led Egypt.

There were moments of discord between Washington and Cairo in recent years, however, particularly over Egypt’s restriction and targeting of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) aiming to help democratic parties; Cairo denounced those NGOs as outside agitators. In 2017, then-U.S.-Secretary of State Tillerson canceled $96 million in aid and suspended another $195 million (mostly military aid) until Cairo addressed specific concerns. The move was rather dramatic given how open President Trump had been in his support for President Sisi—despite credible and growing concerns over the Sisi government’s human rights record. Since 1978, the U.S. has provided more than $71 billion dollars ($47 billion in military aid and $24 billion in economic aid) to Egypt. Despite that aid—or because of it, and the military focus in particular—Egypt remains economically and politically fragile. 

In a clear sign the U.S. is choosing to support stability over liberty in Egypt—a choice not unique to this administration, but one preferred by Washington in many places around the world for decades—Secretary of State Pompeo lifted the freeze on the $195 million in military aid. The State Department did not provide details as to what exactly the Egyptian government did to address the previous concerns; in fact, the Sisi regime is re-trying 43 aid workers, many of whom are foreign, who were previously convicted in dubious trials. This is a step backwards, not forwards, in addressing human rights concerns.

Meanwhile, a sense of historic deja vu is settling in. On June 24, the Sisi government announced it was extending by three months, from July 14 to October 14, the state of emergency it imposed in August 2017 after several terrorist attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tantra. This latest extension is the fifth, with the government reporting it must ‘take the necessary measures to face the risk of terrorism, protect citizens’ lives and imprison whoever violates the president’s decisions in compliance with the provisions of the 1958 State of Emergency Law No. 162.’  A ‘permanent’ temporary state of emergency has been a hallmark of Egyptian life since 1981. Cairo does indeed face a very real terrorist/insurgent threat in the Sinai, and in Alexandria and Cairo as well, but the systemic relentless repression of liberty in the name of security has proven disastrous for Egypt’s body politic and for its people. 


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