US and Egypt renew security cooperation despite political disagreements

Friday 14/08/2015
For Sisi, restoration of full US security assistance is an important achievement

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cairo at the beginning of August revealed a two-pronged US approach towards Egypt: full cooperation on strategic issues while pressing political re­forms. For the Obama administra­tion, this policy serves to support a strategic ally in a turbulent region while deflecting concerns of human rights groups and members of the US Congress.
For the Sisi administration in Egypt, the policy ensures continued US security assistance to help it fight a terrorist insurgency and protect its porous borders. Although Egypt remains annoyed by occasional US criticism on human rights, it views the new US policy as a positive de­velopment, particularly because it appears that punitive measures, such as suspending aid, are not like­ly to resurface.
In his August 2nd speech in Cairo marking resumption of the bilateral strategic dialogue, Kerry touched on all of the important issues in the relationship: cooperation against terrorism in Egypt and against the Islamic State (ISIS), training for the Egyptian military, support for the Egyptian economy and economic reforms and support for the “fun­damental rights” of all Egyptian citizens.
Kerry specifically mentioned delivery of US-manufactured F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, fast missile boats and armoured vehicles. He also spoke of “robust training” for the Egyptian military and “new suggestions about how to expand our cooperation in counter­ing terrorism and enhancing border security”.
From October 2013 to March 2015, much of the US military assistance to Egypt was suspended to protest the Egyptian government’s violent crackdown on the opposition. The United States hoped to persuade the Egyptian government to reverse undemocratic practices.
But a combination of Egyptian national pride and substantial fi­nancial aid from its Gulf Arab allies made Egyptian leaders — especially President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — re­sistant to pressure.
After much interagency wran­gling, the Obama administration decided it was more important to restore aid to Egypt and resume the strategic dialogue.
There is growing recognition in Washington that Egypt is facing a dangerous terrorism threat. An un­named State Department official said in early August that the United States decided on the new approach because “the Egyptians were facing a very serious threat from [ISIS]- affiliated organisations in the Si­nai and [we] needed to help them and support what they’re trying to achieve there.” US punitive meas­ures were not working as intended.
Underscoring this security im­perative, Kerry said in Cairo that the United States and Egypt would re­sume military exercises, including Operation Bright Star, which had been held on a biennial basis prior to 2011.
For Sisi, the restoration of full US security assistance is an important achievement. Although Egypt has bought weapons systems from oth­er countries, its military has been heavily dependent and trained on US equipment and systems since the late 1970s.
While cognizant of how impor­tant military assistance is to bilat­eral relations, the Obama adminis­tration has not given up advocating for human rights and democratic progress. While in Cairo, Kerry im­plied that government crackdowns were driving young people into the arms of militants. “The success of our fight depends on building trust between the authorities and the public,” he said.
Kerry reportedly pressed Egyp­tian officials to undertake police reforms, protect freedom of assem­bly and speech and not to persecute non-governmental organisations.
After Kerry left Cairo, Tom Ma­linowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, met with Egyptian human rights groups and political party ac­tivists.
Such meetings and comments put the Egyptian government on notice that the United States will not turn a blind eye to human rights and democracy issues even while supporting its security needs. This has served to reduce criticism the Obama administration faced prior to the strategic dialogue from a number of human rights groups, newspapers, think-tank specialists and others claiming that the United States was coddling the Egyptian government.
Although many members of Con­gress have developed a favourable attitude towards Sisi, particularly in light of his comments earlier in 2015 that Islamic religious figures need to do a better job confronting the extremists’ ideologies, there are still influential members who have not given up on the issue of political freedoms in Egypt.
On July 29th, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to Kerry asking that he make “political reform, hu­man rights and fundamental free­doms” a central part of the strategic dialogue with Egypt.
Predictably, Egyptian officials, such as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, disagree with US com­plaints on human rights and the is­sue remains a sticking point in the bilateral relationship. But, for the time being, the two countries are unlikely to allow these issues to scuttle the security relationship.