Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
While recent news reports have focused on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's high-profile visit to Egypt to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, more persistent attention needs to be paid to Egypt's internal security challenges—many of which directly impact the strategic interests of the United States and its regional partners.
For one, weapons from war-torn Libya and neighboring Sudan are being smuggled across Egypt's porous borders to militants in Gaza—in particular, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Indeed, Israel has long charged that Iran uses Sudan as a launching point to send weapons to Gaza militants, and the government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi can—and should—do much more to address those concerns.
For another, Cairo is increasingly worried that loose arms are falling into the hands of militants who are hostile to the Egyptian government. Militant attacks against Egyptian security forces in the lawless Sinai Peninsula are on the rise. This was made clear in August 2012, when 16 Egyptian border agents were ambushed and killed in an attack near Sinai's Egypt-Israel border. What's more, according to a recent news report, Western officials now believe foreign jihadists—possibly from Yemen and Somalia—are also currently operating in the Sinai.
It appears that Egypt's military and security forces, if not the Morsi government, are starting to take the internal security threat in the Sinai Peninsula seriously. First, Egypt has begun to crack down on illegal tunnels to Gaza. As Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently noted, "Egypt understands that controlling [tunnel operations to Gaza] gives Egypt considerable leverage over Hamas, an Iran-backed movement that can potentially destabilize Egypt." Second, despite President Morsi's public rejection of proposed high-level security talks with Israel, it appears that Israeli-Egyptian security and intelligence cooperation is nevertheless continuing, and perhaps increasing, behind the scenes.
The challenge for policymakers and lawmakers in the United States is to craft a security policy towards Egypt that encourages Cairo to further actively confront these threats. That's no easy task. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, has consolidated political power at home, aggressively cracked down on rivals and critics, and failed to implement much-needed economic reforms since his election in June 2012.
On the one hand, Washington should not completely eliminate all U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt, as some members of Congress have suggested in recent weeks. On the other hand, the United States should not blindly assist the Morsi government. The more prudent path lies somewhere between these two policy extremes.
U.S. economic and security assistance to Egypt gives America tremendous influence in discussions with the Morsi government. Given that Egypt has been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign assistance for decades, Washington should use its leverage to demand Cairo do more to halt weapons from being smuggled from across Egypt's borders with Libya and Sudan.
Moreover, the Obama administration should pressure Egypt—both publicly and privately—to take decisive action to halt illegal arms shipments through Sinai and into the Gaza strip. As a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers wrote in a December 2012 letter to President Morsi, "Given Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, there's only one way to get weapons into Gaza, and that is through Egypt. ... In order for the ceasefire to hold, it is imperative that your government bolster its efforts to halt all weapons smuggling taking place via both overland and underground routes."
Finally, lawmakers in Washington should determine how future assistance to Cairo can be more directly tied to counter violence and threats along Egypt's borders.
While security cooperation with Cairo is important, the United States should take care not to neglect Egypt's political transition. The Obama administration should work with members of Congress to positively pressure the Morsi government to protect the rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women; hold free and fair elections; maintain the peace treaty with Israel; and protect U.S. diplomats, the American Embassy in Cairo, and other U.S. government facilities.
The Obama administration's recent rhetoric suggests that it understands the need for Egypt to shore up its internal security. As Secretary of State John Kerry said during his recent Senate nomination hearing:
Egypt has thus far supported and lived by the peace agreement with Israel ... and has taken steps to begin to deal with the problem of security in the Sinai. Those are vital to us and to our national interests and to the security of Israel.
That said, it's critical for U.S. policymakers to work with Congress, and take concrete steps to realize their rhetoric on Egypt.