Although Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was warmly welcomed by U.S. President Donald Trump early this month, however, experts in Washington think over the matter in a different way.
During his meeting with al-Sisi in the White House, Trump said, “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi.” On the other hand, three experts believe that uncritical U.S. embrace of Sisi and his controversial human rights record could make it harder to help Egypt fix what ails it.
All three experts who testified before the panel — Michele Dunne, a longtime Middle East expert at the State Department now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Elliott Abrams, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Tom Malinowski, formerly Obama’s assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor — painted the U.S.-Egypt relationship as a relic of a bygone era.
The three agreed that, given the poor human rights and economic conditions in Egypt at present, the relationship should be reconsidered.
Abrams said, In the 1970s, when Washington helped nudge Moscow out of Egypt and built closer ties with Cairo, Egypt was the most influential Arab country in the region. That is no longer the case. And the Egyptian military, which has gobbled up billions of dollars in U.S. assistance in recent decades, is still built to refight the 1973 war with Israel, rather than take on Islamist militants.
He said, what’s more ham-fisted security operations and brutal security services have not endeared the generals to regular folks.
Abrams said, “Egyptian policy shifted sympathy from military to militants.”
In the same context, Dunne said, in theory, Washington could encourage better behavior from Egypt, which, with its 1.3 billion in assistance, is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel. But aid, especially if it goes for the military, can often just become a blank check.
She added, “The U.S. doesn’t have a way to ensure our assistance is not making the problem worse.” She suggested that to help fix that the investment in human development and education instead of huge cash transfers.
Abrams argued aid should be reviewed so that it is clearly used to target terrorism.
In addition, Malinowski that urged the subcommittee to ask the question, “Is our investment in Egypt appropriate? My strong view is that it is completely out of balance.”
He also said that the United States should review its aid program. It could get a lot more out of whack, Trump’s proposed budget would slash development aid and re-channel much foreign assistance through security budgets.
Some key lawmakers seem to be getting tired of Egypt, which has in the six years since the start of the Arab Spring struggled to achieve a stable economy or deliver many of the idealistic slogans that animated protesters in Tahrir Square.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), the chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs at a hearing on Tuesday also said just because Egypt has historically been stable does not mean it will always be.
He said, “We need to reshape the relationship in a way that’s sustainable,”adding that the military cannot be the strongest player in the economy.
In this context, Dunne said that al-Sisi has also decreed many changes in laws, regulations, and government contracting procedures to allow the military or military-affiliated companies to take a larger-than-ever share of the economic pie.
Moreover, Malinowski noted that Trump’s no-questions embrace of Sisi doesn’t just color U.S.-Egyptian relations, ” The rest of the world has noticed, and comes up when the United States tries to discuss human rights. (Just a few days ago, video emerged of extrajudicial killings by members of the military in North Sinai.)
He added that the whole world sees the spectacle of al-Sisi welcomed in the White House without a mention of human rights, saying he was saddened by the spectacle.