Renewed Bright Star exercises could be a plus for both Egypt and the US
After being cancelled for several years, the Pentagon recently announced that the US-Egypt Bright Star military exercises would resume in September. The Obama administration stopped them in response to concerns over human rights and democratisation in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Trump administration announced, however, that it would partially suspend military and economic aid to Egypt over similar human rights concerns, putting a cloud over Bright Star.
Unlike previous Bright Star exercises — usually held every two years from 1980-2009 — that involved the participation of military units from many countries, these exercises would involve US, Egyptian and — for the first time — a small number of Sudanese troops. The exercises were expected to be smaller in scope than in past years and would focus on counterterrorism, specifically detecting and eliminating roadside bombs and ensuring border security.
If the exercises occur, it will be a plus for both the United States and Egypt.
For the United States, it signals support for Egypt in its fight against such groups as Sinai Province, which is affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) and has attacked Egyptian security forces for several years. Egypt also faces threats from terrorists infiltrating its borders with Libya and Sudan.
US assistance to Egypt in defeating terrorist groups could boost the generally negative US image in Egypt.
The resumption of Bright Star also signals that long-time US efforts to persuade Egypt to focus on real threats rather than traditional ones have paid off. Various sources said US military officials often butted heads with the older generation of Egyptian military officials who considered Israel their main threat and wanted military preparation to reflect this. Egypt’s improved relations with Israel and the persistence of the terrorist insurgency in the Sinai seem to have brought about a change in their thinking.
For Egypt, the younger generation of military officers will gain first-hand advice from US counterterrorism and counter-insurgency experts. The US military initially had trouble combating the Iraqi insurgency but learned from its mistakes and wants to share its knowledge with friendly countries such as Egypt.
This year’s Bright Star is to include a “senior leader seminar” in Egypt, a spokesman for the US Central Command said. Although the spokesman provided no details, it likely will involve what the United States considers “best practices” that Egyptian officials can pursue in fighting terrorism. Hopefully, Egyptian security forces will adopt a more nimble and effective counterterrorism approach — as opposed to collective punishment against entire Bedouin villages.
For Egypt, reducing the terrorist threat would go a long way towards increasing tourism revenues, attracting foreign direct investment and reducing youth unemployment. Because of political instability and terrorism, revenues fell from $11.6 billion in 2010 to $4.4 billion in 2016. Although tourism revenues have climbed this year, in large part because of the depreciation of the Egyptian pound, they are far below 2010 levels.
Attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups on Egypt’s Coptic Christians have hurt the government’s ability to show that it is protecting this minority group, whose plight — along with other Christian groups in the Middle East — has become a concern in Europe and the United States.
Despite these mutual benefits, human rights groups will see the resumption of Bright Star as an undeserved reward for the Cairo government at a time when Egypt’s human rights conditions are poor and NGOs have come under even more restrictions than they faced in the past.
Although the timing is odd — especially considering the resumption of Bright Star — the Trump administration, probably as a result of congressional dissatisfaction with Cairo over human rights, decided to withhold $195 million in military aid and about $96 million in economic aid to Egypt.
This partial suspension of aid is a signal that, while the United States sees Egypt as an important security partner, it remains unhappy with some of its domestic and foreign policies. The latter relates to reports that the United States is upset over Egypt’s “cosy relationship” with North Korea, ties that go back to the early Cold War era when Egypt was a pro-Soviet ally.
The modified Bright Star exercises, if followed up by Egyptian security forces pursuing better practices in the Sinai and elsewhere, could lead to an improvement in human rights, at least in the areas affected by the terrorist insurgency, which could prompt the Trump administration to release the suspended aid.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Egyptian security forces will take US advice on the human rights aspect of effective counterterrorism training but this approach is worth pursuing for strategic, political and moral reasons.