Update 9/15: The Biden Administration announced Thursday that it will only withhold $85 million of its committed military aid to Egypt, releasing $235 million of aid that had been conditioned on improving human rights in the country. The administration had withheld $130 million in 2021 and 2022.
Today, the State Department must decide whether to withhold some of the $1.3 billion in military support that the U.S. gives to Egypt each year. Under normal circumstances, this would have been an easy decision. Washington has given Cairo more than $50 billion in weapons aid since 1978, a testament to the long and close relationship between the two countries.
But the past few years have been more complicated. As President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has increasingly cracked down on dissent in the country, a growing group of Democratic lawmakers has fought to reduce aid to his government. The Biden administration withheld $130 million each of the last two years in response to heavy congressional pressure, and the State Department announced on Monday that it would block at least $85 million in aid this year. But lawmakers are determined to go further.
“Over the last year, Egypt’s human rights record has continued to deteriorate, despite the Egyptian government’s claims to the contrary,” wrote a group of leading Democratic senators in July. “Therefore, we urge you to withhold the full amount of $320 million.”
“[T]he bilateral security relationship can be effectively sustained at a reduced level of assistance while upholding our values,” argued the lawmakers, which included prominent progressives like Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as well as centrist leaders like Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
To better understand the factors influencing today’s decision and the history of the relationship, RS spoke with retired Maj. Gen. F.C. "Pink" Williams, who served as the U.S. defense attaché to Egypt from 2008 to 2011. Williams recently wrote a chapter on the history of U.S.-Egypt military relations in an edited volume entitled “Security Aid in the Middle East.” The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RS: The State Department is set to decide whether it will withhold up to $320 million in military aid to Egypt, citing human rights concerns. How should the Biden administration think about that decision?
Williams: It's a mixed bag whether this does any good or not. Over the years, we've threatened to withhold aid. Sometimes we've carried through with that; sometimes we haven’t. My personal opinion is that it hasn't had any broad effect on governance or the human rights situation in Egypt.
There are those that would argue that it's somewhat effective around the edges, and I could probably support that. When Sisi releases a few political prisoners, some people will say, "well, that's in part because of the pressure we applied on the funds." I think that's hard to assess, but I do believe that withholding of funds is not going to make any substantive change in how Sisi acts.
RS: Something you talked about in your chapter in this recent book is this idea that Egypt and the U.S. have pretty different views of the military relationship. Can you spell that out a little bit?
Williams: Given that the whole relationship was initially built around the Camp David Accords, Egypt decided that the funding was basically a reward, or a bribe, if you want to put it that way. They've never really moved away from that. They're not trying to change the world here. They're trying to, frankly, get money for their regime and their government.
Now, we, on the other hand, began to move away from the Camp David [approach] as we saw that it was unlikely that another conflict would occur between the Israelis and the Egyptians. We don't see the aid anymore as needed to get the Egyptians to keep the peace because it's clearly in their best interest to do so anyway. So then we started coming up with other reasons why we're giving the aid.
As human rights and democracy became tied more and more to foreign aid, it was only natural that we would go down that road. So we started with some differences anyway, but then they widened quite a bit over time.
RS: In the long sweep, how has U.S. military aid in particular affected the shape of politics and the political system in Egypt?
Williams: I don't think it's had very much effect. We tend to forget that nations and regimes act in their perceived best interest. It's only natural that they would do so. Of course, we see support for democracy and human rights as not just an altruistic goal but also something that's in our best interest. However, when you push those themes in other countries with other cultures and other backgrounds, I think you have to be careful. From the Egyptian point of view, the regime's going to do what it thinks it needs to to strengthen itself and to ensure its longevity.
Unfortunately, many authoritarian regimes see repression as a tool for staying in power. It's just that simple. So the idea that, for any amount of money, a dictator is going to do something that he thinks is going to weaken his position is pretty far-fetched.
RS: What most surprised you about the relationship during your time in Cairo? Did Egypt's military and that relationship meet the expectations you had going in?
Williams: I'm a fighter pilot by trade, and when we sold Egypt the F-16 back in 1980, I was part of that program. They sent two of us to Egypt as instructors for a year. When I returned many years later, I was not surprised at the state of the Egyptian military or their ability to effectively use the equipment that we had provided because I had the background from early on.
What surprised me quite a bit was the shallowness of the relationship. We really didn't — and do not, as far as I know, to this day — have any significant knowledge of the Egyptian planning processes, their strategic plans. We're still just giving them money and equipment, and they're keeping the peace. They are doing other things for us too that I shouldn't give short shrift in terms of intelligence, but I was very surprised that we didn't have a deeper relationship after all those years.
RS: Can you talk more about what the U.S. does get out of the relationship? It's kind of striking that you're saying that our influence appears limited.
Williams: Some of that comes back to expectations. The idea of influence is that we'll give them this money, and we'll guide them. Again, you go back to differences in culture and differences in perceived interest. This idea that you're going to have all this influence because you give them money — which is a very widespread opinion in Washington in my experience — is unrealistic.
However, on a practical level, the intelligence situation is not something we can go into in any depth, but obviously they are positioned and have resources that we don't have that can provide some decent information to us. And on the counterterrorism front, I think they've been quite helpful. And the Suez Canal priority and the overflight [permissions] that they provide us save us all kinds of time and money.
RS: You were stationed in Egypt during the Arab Spring protests. How did that political turmoil affect your work and affect the country's ties with the US?
Williams: Everything didn't come to a complete standstill, but it really ground down. All the non-essential personnel were evacuated from the embassy. There were roughly 400 embassy personnel on a normal day, and we were down a little bit below 100.
We had various bases scattered about Egypt, where we had small contingents of American pilots and maintainers and other advisers. We pulled all those people in from those bases, and they were either subsequently evacuated or they worked work for me in the embassy. So all the interaction and advising at the outlying sites came to a halt. From the point of normal day-to-day interaction, it was pretty much nil.
Now there was a lot of interaction because there was, of course, great concern in Washington about what the Egyptian military was going to do with all this. If you recall, they weren't doing anything initially. They were trying to stay out of it initially. When people wanted to talk to the Egyptians, they generally would come through my office because they knew that we could get contact with them and access to them, and we could set up phone calls. The way they were doing it was that they would have a counterpart call their counterpart. In other words, they would have Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense, and he would want to talk to the Egyptian defense minister [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi.
They were trying to maintain this contact and get some assurances from these guys that there's not going to be a bloodbath out there in Tahrir Square. The majority of those contacts were negotiated and coordinated by the Office of Military Cooperation because we had the access. So what do we get for all this money? Well, we at least got them to take our phone calls. And they were not taking [other calls]. There were ambassadors from other countries calling me saying, "What do you know? What is happening?"
That is not the same thing as me claiming that we materially influenced the actions of the [Egyptian Armed Forces] in that time. They are sitting there assessing the situation and saying, "What is in our best interest? How do we get through this and still be an intact military and an intact regime on the other side?"
RS: That's a really good example of an acute moment where there's an attempt to have an influence in favor of democracy, in favor of human rights. Do you think over the long term that U.S. aid to Egypt has had a positive effect on human rights in the country?
Williams: It's probably had some good effect in individual cases. In other words, we're bringing pressure, and Sisi or [former President Hosni] Mubarak is looking to get us off his neck, so he releases some political prisoners. For those people, that's a big, big outcome. Not being in Egyptian prison is a really good thing.
I would not ever claim that it has resulted in some philosophical shift in the outlook of either the Mubarak regime or the Sisi regime or the [Mohamed] Morsi regime for that matter. They view things differently, and they run governments differently than we do.
I'll give you an example. During the revolt, of course, we were right there. We were very close to Tahrir square. I walked into work one morning, and I get a photo. My staff says, "Look at this." It's a photo taken from the embassy looking out, and there's an Egyptian tank with some soldiers, and they've got this guy strung up by his heels on the gun barrel there. I don't know what he did or what caused the situation, but there he was, and he's alive and everything. So I take this over to the Egyptians and say, "Hey, guys, this is exactly the kind of thing that you don't need to be doing. You don't need to hurt yourself with this." And that was a theme we were talking to them about. We were talking to them about these stories coming through of interior forces abusing people, and that's bad. Frankly, [we told them] "That's bad press. It hurts your cause, and you should not be doing this." Well, I show him this photo, and what are they interested in? They were taken at night, right? What they're interested in is "How did you get that photo? What is that technology?" They didn't even blink about this guy strung up from his heels on this tank. It just kind of shows you the mindset.
RS: How should we handle the future of US aid to Egypt?
Williams: First, we need to stay engaged. When people say, "Why are we doing all that for Egypt?" I say, "look at a map. You can't change geography." Same reason we have to put up with Turkey. You can't change geography. So we need to stay engaged. Russian influence building, Chinese influence building, the perception throughout the region that we can't be trusted — all these things only make it harder to try to engage and have any influence at all. Nevertheless, I think we have to try.
To the money, we're not talking about a ton of money here. I would continue to fund it. You can tie it to human rights, but I wouldn't go through this exercise of conditioning the funds or taking away the funds once a year. They know we're interested in human rights. We can have those discussions. But I don't know that tying the funds has had any substantive effect.
So I would stay engaged, I would be careful about tying the aid to their human rights performance, and I would try to assure them that, as we have been there through the years for the long haul, we're still going to be there for the long haul.