US-Egyptian relations improving on security; strains remain over domestic issues
WASHINGTON - U S President Barack Obama’s decision in early April to restore suspended US military hardware sales to Egypt reflects an attempt to assist Cairo as a strategic partner in the fight against terrorism at home and instability in the broader region. But Egypt’s problematic human rights situation remains a thorn in the relationship.
After nearly a year and a half of inter-governmental wrangling, the Obama administration decided to restore sales of military items to Egypt, citing national security reasons. The decision to suspend such military hardware was taken in October 2013, largely in reaction to the violent crackdown by Egypt’s government against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and the imprisonment of thousands.
Obama administration officials said implementing a punitive policy towards the military-backed government of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi would not only signal US distaste for his draconian policies against oppositionists but would somehow cause him to change his policies. After all, this line of thinking went, Egypt keenly wants and needs US military hardware and Sisi would soon buckle under this pressure.
A combination of substantial Gulf Arab money and Egyptian national pride, however, worked against this scenario even though Sisi himself complained about not receiving such weapons in interviews with American media. In 2013, he said that the suspension of the delivery of F-16 jets was “not the way to treat a patriotic military”. With the punitive strategy not working and with dangers — in the Sinai, Syria, Libya and Yemen — mounting, it appears the Obama administration made a decision that working closely with Egypt on security matters and supporting Egypt on regional issues was imperative. Restoring held-up military items such as F-16 jets, Harpoon missiles for Apache helicopters and parts for M1A1 Abrams tanks would shore up Egypt’s military capabilities and have the added benefit of easing tensions in the bilateral relationship.
Washington also concluded that Egypt is playing a positive security role in the region by supporting the anti-ISIS coalition, declaring the need for a collective Arab security force to confront challenges in the region and sending naval ships to the Yemeni coast and launching air strikes, in conjunction with the Saudis, against Houthi rebels.
Underscoring this common focus on security, on April 8th the US State Department approved the sale of 356 Hellfire missiles to Egypt and an agency of the US Defence Department said the equipment would “improve the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East”.
That said, the Obama administration has not dropped its criticism of Egypt’s repressive domestic policies. On April 11th, an Egyptian judge, known for harsh judgments against Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, sentenced Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American journalist with dual citizenship, and three Egyptian journalists, to life-in-prison terms.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Obama administration was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict against Soltan and called on the Egyptian government to “redress it”. The White House issued a statement condemning the life sentence and called for Soltan’s “immediate” release from prison.
Reacting to reporters trying to connect military aid and human rights, Harf, on April 13th, tried to delink the two, saying the US decision on restoring military aid was not an endorsement of Cairo’s approach to domestic dissent.
She said the decision to restore military aid was based on increased “threats to Egyptian security” but that the United States remained “troubled by the practice of mass trials and sentencing, which we have said run counter to what we think due process under the law should look like”.
The following day, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement calling on Western nations not to criticise “sentences issued by independent judicial bodies”. The statement added that those countries should instead “focus their efforts on the conditions of their own people and to combat the phenomenon of racism” in their own societies.
Although the US-Egyptian relationship is on the mend because both countries see terrorism and regional instability as common threats, the countries will continue to disagree over how the Egyptian government and judiciary deal with dissenters.
Both appear unwilling to give up their core beliefs on this issue. How they manage this major irritant in the relationship will continue to challenge policymakers in both Washington and Cairo.