The United States has been a major supporter of Egypt in terms of economic and military aid for many years.1 The main reason for the US supporting Egypt through trade has been to enhance stability in the region. Moreover, Egypt was a party to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. Given that the United States is a major ally of Israel, supporting Egypt ensures that the peace treaty remains effective. Thus, the key goals of any foreign policy with Egypt will be aiming to foster additional stability in the region for the protection of U.S. interests.
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The aid to Egypt from the U.S. was $76 billion in the 1948 to 2015 period.2 Some of that amount went directly to the Egyptian military from 1987 to the present. The U.S. Congress must approve the allocations for it to provide aid to Egypt. One condition of the aid placed by Congress was that the funds given must be beneficial to American companies and citizens. Thus, when providing military aid to Egypt, Congress demands that much of the military assistance fund is used to purchase weapons and other defense systems and services from the U.S. defense contractors.
Background of U.S. – Egypt relations
Egypt regards foreign policy as an important part of its state policy. Thus, the foreign policy of the country has to work in line with the provisions and opportunities presented in its diplomatic and political functions. The country has a strong development agenda; thus, its foreign affairs representatives spend a lot of time and resources wooing international aid and foreign direct investment into the country. The country follows a traditional friendly framework for its approaches to international relationships.3 It uses existing and new relationships with other countries to influence and pursue national interests all over the globe. Therefore, one of the tasks of coming up with relevant U.S. policies for application to the Egyptian case is to have a thorough understanding of the way Egypt treats foreign relations.
It is important for this background part of the briefing paper to highlight some features of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 because it plays a huge part in the present and future substance of peace in the region. In fact, the 1979 peace treaty ushered a new U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Current and future U.S. presidents have to engage Egypt at some point in their presidency as they handle North Africa and Middle East issues related to economic, social, cultural, and political aspects. The geographical position of Egypt makes it an important country that can serve the U.S. interest at home and in the region when it is an ally.
Moreover, the peace treaty with Israel allows the U.S. to maintain stability by stopping wars in the region. Success in the U.S.-Egypt relationships implies success in Washington’s ability to keep peace and extends the motivation of Washington to consider more policies for peace and stability with other countries in the Middle East. In fact, after the assassination of the president of Egypt, Sadat fused international peace and internal repression and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, upheld the treaty with Israel.4
Despite the involvement of the U.S. in fostering international peace in the Egyptian region, the situation in 2011 during the Arab Spring raised questions on whether the U.S. policy was actually working. This is despite the assistance that the U.S.-Egyptian relations have provided in negotiating the coexistence between Israel and Palestine. The recurring question about the effectiveness of the U.S.-Egypt relationships has been on what was the particular role of the U.S. in stopping or reducing the impact of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Unlike other countries that took part in the Arab Spring, such as Syria and Tunisia, Egypt is considered an ally of the United States and it has been receiving assistance for fostering political reforms that can make it less of a military state and more of a democratic example for the Middle East.5 The question raised here is whether the U.S. policy on Egypt could have failed to achieve its objective of maintaining stability in Egypt and fostering democracy. There is also the question of whether a subsequent policy has to shift the nature of affairs between the two countries radically.
The regime changes in Egypt have had a profound effect on the geopolitical stability of the Middle East. The region is slowly ending political volatility that commenced with the Arab Spring in Tunisia. The transition of Egypt from Hosni Mubarak to the present has been rough, which is evidence enough for the need for additional assistance for the democratic systems of the country. The country has a significant military might that, at some point in the transition, appeared to make inroads into civil affairs and threatened the long-term stability of the country.
However, a robust constitution and the existence of functioning arms of government like the judiciary saved Egypt from total collapse, as it was possible for the military to hand over power back to civilian rule. The demonstration calls for additional support of the Egyptian arms of government to provide sufficient democratic system support through checks and balances to the executive and each arm of the government. Moreover, the international affairs of the Middle East are taking a different direction that requires more than military interventions. A battle for ideologies is picking up in the region.6 Having a democratic model country that respects the interests of its people, rulers, and neighbors will serve the U.S. interests well to foster peace and security for economic prosperity.
Option 1: Policy to Strengthen the Egyptian Democratic Space
The United States needs to rebalance its foreign interests in the Middle East and Asia. In the past decade, much of the country’s attention in the region has been related to conflict resolution and ousting of the oppressive regime. Unfortunately, the U.S. cannot claim victory yet. In fact, the situation on the ground is rapidly mutating to present new problems. On the other hand, the rest of Asia, like China and India, presents the United States with opportunities to grow its economic objectives but creating and fostering trading relations with the emerging economies. The U.S. can do the same for the Middle East, and the best place to start the new policy will be in Egypt. However, given that Egypt is recovering from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, focusing exclusively on economic ties will not suffice for now.
The country already plays a fundamental peacebuilding role in the region by acting as a model neighbor. The next step is to strengthen its internal, democratic, political, and economic processes so that the prosperity of Egypt becomes the prosperity of the Middle East. With such an achievement, the U.S. will be able to nurture a trading partner that deals with more goods and services compared to the current concentration of deals with the U.S. defense contractors.7
The U.S. has to increase its support for human rights and respect for democratic institutions in Egypt. Maintaining the internal stability of the country will go a long way in making it a dependable ally in the quest to realize the goals of the 1979 peace treaty.8 Diplomats around the world know that the U.S. foreign policy has its roots in democratic ideals. It is unthinkable to have the U.S. neglect abuses of human rights and oppression of citizens in a country that has cordial relations with the U.S. Many people around the world, including rulers, expect the U.S. to use its global hegemony in military, economic, and democratic powers as an advantage to compel its international partners to respect its intentions.
In fact, critics of the U.S. foreign policy raised the alarm when the U.S. appeared to give unconditional support to the Morsi government that took over after the uprising in Egypt. Led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the government at the time, the U.S. Obama administration provided unconditional support to Egypt. It respected the democratic process of Egypt and reiterated that the citizens of Egypt had a right to choose their leaders and their political system.9
While the approach is commendable as it tests the extent of the U.S. support for democracy, even if it does not go with its preferred outcomes, it falls short of sustaining domestic and foreign interests of the United States. In Egypt, the U.S. has to encourage positive, strategic, moral, and political outcomes that can serve U.S. interests. This implies that the U.S. has to go beyond support for democracy and provide aid to support the strengthening of democratic institutions. It must play a part in the sensitization of the Egyptian population towards making better democratic decisions through political participation. The U.S. aim should be to ensure that politics in Egypt touch on ideas and developmental agendas, which include peace and stability within and outside Egypt.
The world is currently recovering from a fascist assault and has to deal with a threat of Soviet expansionism. The influence of the U.S. in the world has to be mightier than it has ever been. This principle must shape the U.S.-Egypt relations. Regarding this policy proposal, the U.S. has to increase funding substantially for state and non-state agencies working in Egypt to improve the country’s democratic space. Eliminating tendencies of an oppressive regime will enable the U.S. to continue with its past mission of using Egypt as a model country for the penetration of democracy in the Middle East.
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Option 2: Policy to Use Egypt as a Force for Improving Peace in the Region
An alternative policy that the U.S. can pursue is to enhance its military assistance to Egypt so that Egypt can perform peace-making duties on behalf of the United States in the Middle East. The US has faced criticism for its approach to peacebuilding in the region by its invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Egypt is already a participant of the Arab World peace and development affairs; thus, it enjoys a good position for being a proxy for the advancement of U.S. interests in the region. Rather than just aid the Egyptian military, the U.S. should also seek to control the direction of expenditure of the military aid it provides. Directing the expenditure can help the U.S. to enhance its grip on the country and the region’s affairs and be able to make early interventions whenever there is chaos.
Currently, the President of the U.S. wants to refine military assistance to Egypt to make it a force for addressing the challenges that Egypt and U.S. share in the unstable region.10 Future presidents of the U.S. and Egypt should have an easy time going on with the policies formulated on this premise.
A challenge for the U.S. ability to maintain peace in the Middle East comes from the proliferation of an Islamic State ideology. In Egypt, such interests were fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood, which shared the same enemy with Iran. If the Muslim brotherhood fails to succeed in Egypt, then there will be animosity between the country and Israel. In addition to the peace treaty, it will be difficult for the U.S. to explain its intention to support Israel and Egypt at the same time. Therefore, the only solution for peace is to promote a situation that does not involve the advancement of an Islamic state. Egypt should continue pursuing state interests, while it supports the freedom of speech, worship, and economic engagement of its people.11
Even as the U.S. seeks to determine what Egypt follows and fails to follow, it must also respect the sovereignty of the country to prevent a backlash of its foreign affairs policy. Therefore, it must limit its involvement with the domestic affairs of Egypt to a specific threshold. The understanding here is that although Egypt has a checked history of oppression and citizen freedom, it is still a country in transition, and various institutions need enough room to develop localized solutions to internationally accepted frameworks for peace, justice, and economic prosperity. Moreover, the United States seeks an ally in fostering peace. At the same time, it would want to ensure that Egypt remains stable in the long-term so that all the military aid provided to the country does not disappear before providing a sufficient return for the U.S.12
In a report titled “Guns, Butter and Human Rights,” Berger13 explains the way the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt relied on the military to intimidate citizens and maintain power. At the time, the US Congress preferred to keep an imperfect government in power as a way of preventing unknown problems that would arise due to the formation of an Islamic state in Egypt. There was the acknowledgment of poor records of human rights by the Egyptian government, yet there was unwavering support for military aid.14 It is understandable that the Congress would support military aid for two reasons. These are the main reasons why this paper proposes the continuation of military aid as a policy in the U.S.-Egypt international relations.
Military aid to Egypt comes with a caveat. The Egyptian authorities have to use military aid to purchase services and materials from the U.S. defense contractors. Thus, an increase in military aid to Egypt serves as an economic stimulus package for the U.S. defense industry. In return, there is the growth of jobs and increased economic activities to improve the economic prospects of the U.S. The military aid proposal makes sense because the Congress requires the government to make good use of fiscal revenues for the benefit of U.S. citizens. However, the proposed policy here is not just to have military aid for the sake of it. Instead, the intention is to make military aid the cornerstone for improving the relevance of Egypt as an enforcer of peace and stability in the Middle East. Rather than use its might internally against its people, Egypt should be able to use its might for peacebuilding activities in the region.
Option 3: Use Military Aid to Increase Political Liberalization
A new threat to the Middle East is the expansion of extremist groups’ influence. Islamic extremism is a problem that the U.S. is familiar with, but its scale has been significant in the last few years, such that it has become a major headline in international news. Countries succumbing to Islamic extremism states in the Middle East lack sufficient military power to defeat the external aggressors. The increase in the number of insurgent groups in the region is a major threat to peace and security.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other religious sects that have political influence in the country are susceptible to influence by Islamic state ideals and can promote the existence of Islamic extremism. Therefore, the U.S. needs to concentrate its military aid on equipping Egypt’s intelligence and response capacity to such threats. It can learn from ongoing engagements with the extremist groups in Syria and Iran and use the lessons to come up with sufficient frameworks for support in the Egyptian case.
Given that many neighboring countries to Egypt are recovering from the political liberalization efforts of the Arab Spring, they still lack sufficient institutional support to transition them through another conflict should it arise. They need the support of the military to safeguard them against the internal and external aggressors. In fact, the nature of modern warfare involves different geographical actors who use the possibilities of globalization to achieve their goals. For example, an enemy within a country is able to increase its military might by calling on soldiers and sympathizers from around the globe to join its army. There is an imminent security threat posed by terrorist and extremist groups. At the same time, many of these groups thrive in nations that are oppressive to their citizens and those that lack sufficient democratic systems to foster human rights and peaceful social prosperity and equality.
On the other hand, the world realizes that one country cannot defeat globalized terror and extremism. Instead, this is a war between a coalition of countries supporting peace and coexistence against a coalition of terrorists seeking to destabilize nations and create anarchy. The problem is most pronounced in the Middle East, where Egypt has a huge role to play as part of the U.S. intervention in the region to stop the spread of terrorism and Islamic extremism around the world. The U.S. has to protect its citizens around the world and its foreign mission interests in many countries. A threat to Egypt and to the Middle East in the globalized world is a threat to any U.S. interest anywhere in the world.15
Extremist groups thrive because they gain sympathy from oppressed populations. As much as the U.S. maintains the current military aid and democratic institutions’ assistance to Egypt to advance its objectives for peace and security, it should also provide other kinds of aid mainly in health, education, and provision of basic needs to the vulnerable populations in Egypt. These are mainly the urban poor. This move will ensure that the threat of extremism sympathy remains low, and the national government gains sufficient support from its citizens.
The Recommended Policy for the U.S.-Egypt Relations
The U.S. needs to continue relying on Egypt to promote its domestic economic growth. So far, military aid and civilian material aid, to some extent, have been promoters for U.S. companies. Going forward, there are more opportunities to use military aid for the same purpose as the world forms a coalition against extremism and terrorism. Thus, the policies that support military aid should continue.16 The second and third policies are sufficient for this cause, as discussed in this briefing paper.
However, the U.S. will best be served by the third policy that encourages solutions to the causes of problems in security and stability in the region, while still picking only one policy to pursue in the medium term to long-term. The policy also recognizes the significance of Egypt’s might in the region, which is helpful for compelling other nations to side with it in internal peace and security efforts. Egypt also serves as a gateway for the region for the economic and political interests of the United States. Moreover, the third policy framework encourages the U.S. to pay attention to the plight of the ordinary citizens in Egypt, in as much as it supports the government and the military. It will ensure that the idea of promoting democracy and using ideology as a vehicle for defeating anti-U.S. forces succeeds. Cutting the source of support for the U.S. enemies is an important strategy in the third foreign policy proposal.
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Berger, L., ‘Guns, butter and human rights – The Congressional politics of U.S. aid to Egypt’, American Politics Research, vol. 40, no. 4, 2012, pp. 603-635. Web.
Brownlee, J., ‘Peace before freedom: Diplomacy and repression in Sadat’s Egypt’, Political Science Quaterly, vol. 126, no. 4, 2012, pp. 641-658. Web.
Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Strengthening the U.S.-Egyptian relationship (A CFR Paper)’, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2002. Web.
Dyer, G., ‘US restores $1.3bn military aid to Egypt’, Financial Times, 2015. Web.
El‐Kamel, H. Egyptian diplomacy and international relations, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrip, 2010. Web.
European Parliament, ‘The internatioal coalition to counter ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State”)’, European Union. 2015. Web.
Pierce, A., ‘US “partnership” with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its effect on civil society and human rights’, Society, vol. 51, no. 1, 2014, pp. 68-86. Web.
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Sharp, J.M., Egypt: Background and U.S. relations, Congressional Research Servcie, Washington, DC, 2015. Web.
U.S. Department of State, U.S. Relations with Egypt, 2014. Web.