By Nicolette Teta
Reversing the last eight years of US foreign policy, President Trump welcomed President Sisi of Egypt during Sisi’s first visit to the White House earlier last year. At the meeting between the two leaders, the Trump administration decided to withhold economic and military aid to Egypt due to its abysmal human rights record. More recently, the United States is considering disbursing its standard military aid package to Egypt but has remained staunch in its decision to withhold economic assistance. With Egypt’s election nearing, the United States as its primary financier must utilize a less reactionary and more progressive approach in its foreign relations with the country. Curating the seeds for economic instability while encouraging the military regime is not the answer to combating extremism in the region if terrorism remains the focal point of the relationship.
The Washington director of Human Rights Watch harshly criticized the Trump-Sisi meeting, questioning Trump’s failure to acknowledge Sisi’s harsh tactics for the sake of facilitating a stronger working relationship. Resuming military aid is not a guarantee that the dictatorship will allocate such funds according to the U.S. security agenda. Leaving economic funding off the table, however, will arguably leave Egypt in a worse condition, unable to cope with the ebb and flow of its economic insecurity.
This March, Egypt will hold its first Presidential election since the military coup against Mohammed Morsi that placed Sisi into power. With Sisi to run as the only official candidate after threatening and intimidating his opponents, these elections have been labeled undemocratic. Trump’s language and actions lends support and encouragement to the dictator’s tactics, such as banning NGOs from operating inside the country and cracking down on “dissidents” of the regime. These human rights abuses were some of the cited reasons behind the United States’ choice to remove aid from the state.
Egypt is highly dependent on external financial aid and has long been among the top benefactors of assistance from the United States, receiving an average check of $1.6 billion per year since 1979. The country continues to face severe economic issues such as poor living conditions, income disparity, a high rate of unemployment, and widespread poverty. Undoubtedly, the reduction of economic aid and the bolstering of military support is antithetical to the U.S. claims of concern for human rights. By reinforcing the military state with weapons, supplies, and money for operations, the Egyptian cabinet has been able to ignore the reality of needing to make financial reforms. Public access to financial resources remains limited, and instead, these funds remain concentrated amongst the political elite.
Of course, the challenge is one of regional security; the United States needs Egypt to remain a firm ally to assert its dominance in the Middle East, a principle President Sisi’s administration is keen on exploiting. Accordingly, the United States also desires a politically stable Egypt to avoid facing volatile situations as seen in the 2011 Revolution which ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak and put U.S. interests in jeopardy.
Studies show domestic political stability is a primary driver for reducing international terrorism. During Sisi’s time in office, the United States and Egypt have been relatively successful in achieving this goal. But although the government has been able to control terrorism, the Egyptian economy remains volatile and its citizens are susceptible to oppressive tactics and reduced quality of life. The United States must boost its economic aid package to Egypt and institute stricter accountability measures to prevent corruption and misappropriation. The United States also must consider reducing its military gifts to an autocratic regime which already controls up to 60 percent of the Egyptian economy. Egypt needs aid to survive, and its citizens should be the primary concern of not only its government but the international community that supports such abuses via backhanded funding. The Egyptian Revolution in 2011 laid the blueprint to the ingredients necessary for revolt; similar circumstances are being seen in Egypt today under Sisi. If the United States is genuinely concerned about regional stability, it must consider repurposing its aid package to Egypt.