US aid to Egypt and the wider failures of American security assistance
When the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, visited Egypt two days ago, he had two main messages. The first was that the Biden administration’s decision to withhold $130 million from the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt over human rights abuses does not affect the strategic ties between the two countries. His second message was that this relationship will be affected if Egypt carried out large arms sales with Russia. This visit took place in the wake of the widely criticized announcement of a $2.5 billion arms sale to Egypt on the eleventh anniversary of the Egyptian Uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
General McKenzie’s message is an accurate representation of President Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and the nature of U.S. security assistance in general. It also reflects the continuation of the long standing reductionist view of security through the narrow lens of militarization, at the cost of human rights and democracy. It’s also a contradiction of Biden’s promises and his framing of the Summit for Democracy around the three priority issues of anti-corruption, fighting authoritarianism, and support for human rights. McKenzie’s second message in particular reflects how this is all primarily grounded in Biden’s China and Russia policies.
First, if stability is one of the U.S. security assistance goals, supplying authoritarian strongmen with high value military aid and arms sales is not the answer. A little over a year before Mubarak’s ouster, the United States announced a $3.2 billion deal for the sale of 25 F-16s and other associated weapons to Egypt. This did not prevent his falling after only 18 days of protests by disgruntled Egyptians revolting against his authoritarian rule, human rights abuses, and social and economic injustices. Those abuses and injustices pale in comparison to those committed by current President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s repressive military dictatorship.
Second, if the objective is to gain a strategic edge over other countries in general, this approach is going to fall short. It only contributes to an escalating arms race that fuels regional conflicts. Only a few days after Egypt’s $2.5 billion deal with the United States, South Korea signed a $1.7 billion deal to export its K9 self-propelled howitzers and other support vehicles to Egypt. A senior Egyptian Army official explicitly commented on the sale that “Egypt is diversifying its arms sources regularly.” By the end of last year, Germany’s arms exports had a leap to $10.65 billion, an increase of 60 percent from the previous year and attributed to a big arms deal to Egypt worth $4.9 billion. Egypt has also recently acquired high value arms deals from France and Italy, despite criticism over human rights abuses.
Third, arms sales from Russia could indeed affect Egypt’s access to U.S. military collaboration by law under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. However, Egypt’s relations with Russia are not confined to arms sales, or defined by security cooperation alone. Last December, a joint Egypt-Russia naval exercise, “Friendship Bridge-4” took place in the Mediterranean with the aim of experience exchange and enhancing cooperation.
A more significant aspect of strategic relations between Egypt and Russia centers on wheat imports. Egypt is the world’s highest wheat importer and it is the most crucial pillar of stability in the country. Russia is the primary wheat exporter to Egypt, which amounted to $2.55 billion in 2019-2020. This figure is only increasing because of the rise of prices and Egypt will need to pay an extra $1.5 billion (0.4 percent of GDP) to cover the cost.
This is one of the biggest challenges Egypt is facing especially under the vulnerable economy. Al-Sisi has been praised for his ability to take so-called courageous economic measures of cutting subsidies on gas and other commodities, but those only increased economic pressure on Egyptians. In 1977, President Anwar Al-Sadat had to rescind his decision of lifting subsidies on wheat due to sweeping protests known as the “bread uprising.” Now, the cabinet is carefully testing the water by reducing the subsidized ration of bread per family.
These are critical challenges given Egypt’s unsustainable economic policies, with a sharp increase in foreign debt and a heavy reliance on high interest short loans to cover them. In 2020, Egypt had to pay a debt service provision of $28 billion, “exceeding the total value of exports, and amounting to around quintuple the revenues from the Suez Canal over the same period.” The water crisis adds to the gravity of the situation. Last month Al-Sisi declared that Egypt is in a state of water poverty. Adding to that is the fear of the potential impact of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Damn on Egypt’s share of the Nile River’s water. On this front, Egypt is collaborating with Russia on establishing water desalination projects as part of Egypt’s attempts to address the looming water crisis.
Fourth, military incentives do not seem effective towards gaining more influence from the anti-China and anti-Russia angles that frame Biden’s foreign policy. During Al-Sisi’s recent visit to China for the Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping made a statement highlighting that China and Egypt “share similar visions and strategies in defending their own interests.” This was right after Xi met with Vladimir Putin, where they sealed a dozen agreements over trade, energy, and other fields and underscored the alignment of their countries against U.S. domination.
This is all happening against the backdrop of unprecedented human rights violations and atrocities committed by Al-Sisi’s regime. Thousands of Egyptians have been jailed for years without charge or on trumped up terrorism charges. Egypt ranks fifth highest in executions. With the erosion of judicial independence, capital punishment sentences have been on the rise since 2011. The criminal justice system is widening its use of torture and inhuman treatment. Meanwhile, U.S. arms transfers lack any accountability and transparency and increased corruption does not allow insight into the actual use of aid and arms sales. Recently, leaked documents reveal that Egypt used French military supplied intelligence to kill civilians. Washington has called for an investigation on allegations indicating similar misuse of U.S. military equipment and involvement in unlawful killings.
A responsible foreign policy approach encourages institutional reforms, transparency, and accountability. The nature of the shared global threat we are facing now, such as the pandemic and climate change, require close collaboration across governments.
The fall of Mubarak 11 years ago should be a reminder that the U.S. hyper-militarized approach has been ineffective and counterproductive. None of this is aligned with President Biden’s stated priorities. And it’s most obviously not aligned with universal international human rights standards either, that sadly, General Mackenzie referred to as a “small” matter.