US and Egypt renew security cooperation despite political disagreements
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.