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.
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stands next to Egyptian Minister of Defense General Mohamed Zaki in Cairo, Egypt on March 8, 2023. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza/ CC BY 2.0)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?