More than three years after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt appears ready to reinstall another strongman regime. On May 26, Egyptians will likely elect General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former head of the Egypt’s military, to be their next president.
It’s critical that the United States ensure that the next government makes good on the Egyptian people’s demands for a free and prosperous society. Towards that end, the Obama administration should strategically leverage U.S. assistance to incentivize Cairo to adopt vital political and economic reforms.
After the July 2013 coup against President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, el-Sissi emerged as the interim deputy prime minister, and issued an eight-point roadmap for Egypt’s democratic transition. The roadmap’s provisions have largely been ignored or subverted, however. The interim government has led a brutal crackdown not only on members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, but also on the liberal opposition. More than 3,000 Egyptians are estimated to have been killed in the first seven months after the coup. On April 26, the courts banned one of the country’s major liberal youth groups, and condemned 683 Egyptians to death for the murder of a single police officer in a proceeding that lasted less than an hour. This came after 37 others were also sentenced to death and 492 to life in prison. The interim government has systematically suppressed the media by shutting down television stations, blocking satellite channels and even imprisoning and killing journalists.
The new military-backed regime’s crackdown has yielded a new wave of instability. Since the coup, 21,000 Egyptians have been imprisoned by the authorities. Islamist groups have responded with violence. Terrorist attacks since July 2013 have already outpaced the most violent years of the country’s insurgency in the 1990s. Militants appear to be increasingly capable and widespread. To be sure, some U.S. policymakers and lawmakers may believe that there is a zero-sum tradeoff between democracy and stability in Egypt. Yet events on the ground are showing once again how unstable heavy-handed governments in Egypt ultimately are.
Amid the crackdown, the Obama administration is now trying to restart partially U.S. military assistance to Egypt. In October 2013, U.S. officials announced a halt of U.S. support for the country’s armed forces. But in January 2014, under strong pressure from the White House, Congress appropriated another $1.3 billion in military assistance to Cairo so long as the executive branch certifies that Egypt is “taking steps to support a democratic transition,” “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States,” and “meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.” On April 22, the State Department announced that Egypt was meeting its obligations under the 1979 agreement, adding that it intended to release $650 million of the $1.3 billion in military assistance and 10 Apache helicopters to help Cairo conduct counterterrorism operations. However, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced one week later that he would freeze the release of the $650 million, and called the military’s actions since the coup those of “a dictatorship run amok.”
To help Egypt return to the road toward more moderate and representative democracy, Washington should leverage its military assistance to push el-Sissi towards genuine political reforms. At a minimum, the United States should withhold military assistance so long as Egyptian authorities continue their wide-ranging campaign against pro-democracy forces.
At the same time, the United States should strengthen efforts to improve Egypt’s economy, democratic governance and protection of human rights. Whereas Egypt received $1.25 billion in military assistance in fiscal year 2013, the United States gave only $281 million in economic development and less than $20 million in funds for promoting democracy. By increasing funding for these programs, Washington would not only provide incentives for Cairo to undertake vital pro-market reforms, but also clearly signal to Egyptians that America supports their democratic aspirations.
The United States has a powerful interest in ensuring that the country becomes a genuine representative democracy. U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should not make the mistake of believing that the return of a strongman means the return to stability. By continuing to support authoritarian rulers, America is only alienating ordinary Egyptians, the very people it ostensibly supports. Indeed, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution recently warned in the Washington Post that “our current policy is only drawing us closer to the day when a new revolution will rock Egypt,” adding, “The next revolution will almost certainly be both more radical and more virulently anti-American than the last.”
To correct this policy failure, the United States should adopt a clear approach towards Cairo that concurs with both America’s interests and values by denying funds to the Egyptian military if it suppresses its own people, by incentivizing Egypt to make needed economic reforms, and by empowering the pro-democratic forces who are the country’s real future.