US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently published recommendations for future U.S. policy in the region placing emphasis on Egypt as being a pivotal country for stability in the Middle East.
It was prepared by a host of renowned authors: Samuel Berger and Stephen Hadley, both former national security advisors, James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, Dennis Ross, a former White House special envoy for Middle East peace, and Robert Satloff, the long-standing director of the Institute.
“No strategy designed to bolster the state system in the Middle East is possible without a functioning U.S.-Egypt relationship,” the article declares, proceeding to outline the ways in which ties could be repaired which have seen considerable strain in recent times.
Strengthening military ties
Sustained military support has been a cornerstone of US relations with Egypt for decades. However, with the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, this aid became a tool that the Obama administration could use to stress their concerns about President El-Sisi’s domestic rule. Much of the aid to Egypt was put on hold in October that year.
Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, justified the continued hiatus of military aid in April 2014 by claiming to Reuters that El-Sisi’s presidency amounted to a continued “flaunting of human rights” and an “abuse of the judicial system.”
He referred specifically to a court ruling that sentenced 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death on April 28 that year.
Since then, the US has softened its position, unfreezing some of the aid after El-Sisi’s election in June 2014. On March 31 this year, Barack Obama finally released the aid in its entirety.
The think-tank article supports this move, particularly in light of what it calls an increasingly “defiant attitude towards the United States” by Egypt. This no doubt refers to El-Sisi’s increased cooperation with Russia since August 2014 as an alternative for military support.
Furthermore, the deepening of military cooperation seems all the more important to these analysts in light of present challenges to Egypt’s security, namely “ISIS-affiliated extremists in Sinai and in Libya.”
Egypt intervened militarily in Libya after the beheading of 20 Egyptian Copts by an ISIS-related group in February and has since maintained its support for the internationally recognised government in Tobruk. The government also continues to struggle against an insurgency North Sinai, where militant attacks since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 have left hundreds of security personnel dead, as well as scores of civilians.
Maintaining the government… and its critics
Along with military support, the analysts show great concern for Egypt’s political stability. As a result, they welcome the continuation of El-Sisi’s presidency.
However, this does not mean that the think-tank fully approves of the president’s policy. “We need not hold back criticism of Egyptian domestic behaviours”, the article explicitly stated.
Behaviours deemed problematic by the analysts revolve around the issue of “leaving no outlet for political activity or the expression of grievances”. This likely refers to the arrests of journalists and the rounding-up of Muslim Brotherhood members before and during El-Sisi’s presidency.
Several journalists and thousands of Islamists have been arrested during El-Sisi’s tenure, in addition to other prominent political activists, including the founder of April 6 Movement Ahmed Maher.
While the think-tank maintains that such policies are “self-defeating domestically”, they still see the stability of Egypt as their main priority. It therefore proposes that a “high-level channel” to the Egyptian President be developed, hoping that such a “red telephone” might influence El-Sisi to alter his policy.
The report's overall assessment is that in any case, criticism “will be more effective in the context of an ongoing U.S.-Egypt relationship”.