The human rights issue will always remain a focal point in the United States foreign policy in the Middle East, in general, and in the Egypt-U.S. relationship, in particular. Former U.S. President Barack Obama said in his historical speech at Cairo University, in 2009, that human rights values are not only American values but human values that the U.S. is determined to defend and promote, worldwide. However, most of the methods adopted by former U.S. administrations to address this critical and complicated issue with Egypt and other Arab countries led to more troubles than gains. That is particularly true for the few instances, wherein the U.S. mixed the annual military aid package with the human rights issue to pressure for a certain political outcome from the Egyptian leadership.
For example, the Republican Administration of President George Bush threatened, in 2005, to cut a portion of the annual U.S. economic and military aid package due to Egypt, if then-president Mubarak had not availed a space in parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, which falsely represented themselves to the international community as political dissidents, at that time. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists gained more influence over social, cultural, and political arenas inside Egypt. Meanwhile, the relationship between Egypt and the United States fell into a long pause for four years, until Bush was replaced by Obama in 2009, which dramatically hindered the U.S. role and interests in the Middle East region.
Ten years later, during which Egyptians led two successful revolutions that overthrew Mubarak’s autocratic regime, in 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s theocratic regime, in 2013, the U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama played the same dangerous card of mixing military aid with the human rights issue, against the current regime of President El-Sisi. Similar to what happened with President Bush, the Obama Administration’s move backfired, causing serious damage to U.S. political and military influence over the Middle East, while in return did not stimulate any tangible human rights reforms, as a direct result of this pressure.
For the past four decades, Egypt depended, almost exclusively, on the United States for armament. Egypt receives an economic and military aid package of 1.3 billion dollars from the United States on an annual basis, in compliance with the provisions of the Peace Accord signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979. A few months after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, in 2013, the Obama Administration decided to freeze the military aid to Egypt and thus put on hold its military procurement efforts. The aid freeze was partially lifted in 2015, and then applied again in 2016, and then lifted again in 2018 after Trump took office.
Eventually, Egypt found itself obliged to abandon the U.S. as its exclusive military ally and decided to actively diversify its sources of armament to avoid the consequences of U.S. morbid abuse of military aid in applying political pressures. Today, Egypt’s military exporters and allies include Russia, China, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt occupies 3rd position among the world’s 25 largest arms importers, in 2019.
The new U.S. Administration of President Joseph Biden should be wary not to repeat the same mistakes that former administrations committed while addressing the issue of human rights reform with the Egyptian state. Currently, there are several media voices, allegedly coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their sponsors, calling on the Biden Administration to cut or freeze the military aid package due to Egypt, this year. As expected, these calls are based on the random and mostly unproven claims that the Egyptian regime is committing systematic human rights violations.
On a U.S. State Department press briefing, on March 11th, Ned Price, Department Spokesperson, was given a loaded question, that attempted to push the Biden Administration to fall into this dangerous trap. The journalist’s intervention was not a question, but an attack on the Biden Administration, for previously stating that selling weapons to Egypt does not interfere with the U.S. commitment to advancing human rights in the country. Then, the journalist pressed Price to confirm that the U.S. would be freezing the military aid to Egypt, as a result.
Price’s response was wise and balanced. He confirmed that the U.S. is working with the Egyptian state on the issue, without this affecting the bilateral ties and the mutual interests of the two countries. “Egypt plays an important role in promoting some of our key interests in the region: regional security and stability through the guardianship of the Suez Canal; counterterrorism cooperation; and its leadership in promoting Middle East peace. Secretary Blinken has had an opportunity to discuss some of these issues with his Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Shoukry;” said Price.
The journalist, who unjustly voiced the invalid claim that El-Sisi’s regime is systematically “oppressing and torturing its people,” said that she just returned from Egypt with a list of 22 names of American individuals, who “have been arrested by the Egyptian state or have been released and are currently facing politically motivated charges.” Ironically, she did not bother to do her job as a journalist and contact the related Egyptian security authorities, while she was in Egypt, to ask them about the 22 American individuals. She did not, even, contact human rights monitoring entities in Egypt, such as the National Council for Human Rights, or the Human Rights Committee in the Egyptian Parliament, to help her save the 22 Americans she claims are oppressed by Egypt. She did not even contact the respective office in the American embassy in Cairo to help the 22 Americans. Rather, she raised the vague and unproven statement, in a press conference, to pressure the State Department to cut aid to Egypt, thus causing collateral damage to the entire US-Egypt relationship.
Human rights are values dearly embraced by most Egyptians, especially the young people who led the revolution, in 2011. It is true that Egypt still suffers a lag in the advancement of political and civil rights. But, on the flip side, President El-Sisi has been relentlessly working, for six years, on advancing economic, social, and cultural rights. The progress made, under El-Sisi's leadership, in terms of improving the living conditions of the poor, empowering women’s role in public life, and improving the status of religious freedom, is unprecedented.
The Biden Administration should not fall for the unwarranted calls to punish the Egyptian state by cutting military aid. That is a wrong policy that has never proven its validity. Rather, the U.S. Administration should work with the Egyptian state, and not against it, if it truly wants to further improve the state of human rights, in Egypt.
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