U.S.-Egypt Relations and the Return of Supported Repression

American strategy in the Middle East is perceived as a battle between two competing demands: the aspirations of the Arab people and the perceived instability that may come from realizing those aspirations on the one hand, and America's strategic position and core interest on the other. The idea that these two demands are in opposition has led the U.S. down a path of choosing one over the other. This week's meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry makes no mention of democratic provisions, human rights abuses and the increased suppression of civil society. The meeting in Washington signals that once and for all the U.S. is choosing one at the expense of the other.

Egypt has been the major arbiter of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and historically has been courted by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union for its strategic importance. Yet today, as the U.S.'s greatest and most enduring Arab ally and recipient of U.S. aid, second only to Israel, Egypt is seen as having four primary interests and functions for the U.S.: the maintenance of the Camp David Accords, the maintenance of U.S. military fly over rights of Sinai, access to the Suez Canal and, more recently, anti-terror coordination and cooperation. Egypt, more than any other nation in the Arab Middle East, remains strategically important, for its stability has great implications for regional stability both militarily and ideologically. Thus, for decades and throughout various administrations, the U.S. has chosen to engage and support repressive regimes in the name of securing its interest.

Yet, during President Obama's first term, there seemed to be a redirection in the Grand Strategy, not only in his commitment to engage the Muslim World, but to place value in the democratic aspirations of people. And after the 2013 military-led removal of Egypt's first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, the U.S. responded to the move by suspending aid to Egypt. In November 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated in Cairo that the "interim government's commitment to the roadmap that will move Egypt forward on an inclusive path to democracy and to economic stability." Kerry went further, stating that "it is in everyone's interest that Egypt see a transition, live a transition, that results in a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression and assembly, the ability to participate in civil society, as well as in religious freedom." The "roadmap" to transition and democracy included holding a national referendum on an amended constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections within six months of the referendum.

The aid suspension was meant to be temporary, with reinstatement of aid coming when the new interim government and the Egyptian military took steps towards restoring democracy. Implementing the "roadmap" took much longer than two years, and did not occur in the order outlined with parliamentary elections taking place before presidential. However by reversing the order and essential eliminating real opposition parties from forming and running in large numbers, the parliament ended up being a rubber stamp to the regime. Essentially, the way in which the current parliament is set up, essentially undercutting its authority, leaving the executive -- President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as the supreme leader of the state. And since the Parliament is only one month old, most of the laws that govern civic and political life in Egypt, including the Protest Law, the NGO Law, the Terrorism Law, have been decreed through Presidential fiat.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power on a strongman platform, not a democratic one. At a time when the U.S. was uncertain of the future port Arab Spring, Sisi promised stability and security. And the Obama administration accepted this paradigm. And so, without the democratic "roadmap" being met, the U.S. reinstated military aid, delivered the suspended F-16 fighter jets and Apache Helicopters, re-launched the U.S.-Egypt "strategic dialogue," and resumed "Bright Star" the joint military exercise suspended after the military takeover of July 3, 2013.

And while the democratic preconditions have been altogether removed from the resumption of military aid in the most recent budget proposal, the fact that the most recent proposal also includes the reinstatement of the sale of tear gas, a weapon used directly to confront protesters -- protesters who have been continuously protesting and demanding their democratic aspirations, protesters that have been jailed, tortured, and disappeared for it. The reinstatement of aid with democratic preconditions, but also without human rights provisions indicates that the U.S. is betting against the Egyptian people and siding with their repressive regime.

Today in Egypt, five years after the internationally celebrated revolution that toppled the 30-year repressive reign of Hosni Mubarak, political freedoms are worse than before the revolution. Protestors and activists face mass incarceration and arbitrary detention. Young people are arrested on university campuses, sporting and private events. The disappearance and torture of youth, at the hands of the state, is on the rise with the number of political prisoners numbering over 40,000. In an arena of closed political expression the ground is fertile for recruitment towards violence.

The rise is violence is already taking place in Egypt -- and this is directly related to the increasing heavy handed policies of the military backed regime. In many ways, Egypt is spiraling towards instability, radicalization, and increased state repression. This is both unstable in the short-term and detrimental to U.S. interest in the long-term. Thus a U.S. strategy for Egypt that abandons the democratic aspirations of the people, is not in the U.S.'s strategic interest. While this strategy may seem to be securing the essence of what protecting one's national security means, by turning its back on the Egyptian people the U.S. is emerging as an inconsistent and duplicitous state whose "Grand Strategy" in the Middle East is not democratic.

In this regard, democracy and stability can no longer be seen as two sides of the same coin. Only a measured commitment to strategic democracy promotion will lead to long-term stability.

This is further discussed in "Democracy and Stability? U.S. Foreign Policy Post Arab Spring," in Rethinking Security in the Twenty First Century: A Reader, ed. Edwin Daniel Jacob (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).