Time to reassess the U.S.-Egypt relationship

By Daniel DePetris

The United States boasts a number of alliances and defense partnerships around the world, but very few have been as long-lasting as Washington’s relationship with Egypt.

Ever since Cairo’s turn away from Soviet patronage in the 1970s and its signing of a peace accord with Israel, Egypt has been squarely in America’s camp. Egyptian officers travel to U.S. military academies for training and education; Washington is granted preferential access through the Suez Canal; and Egypt has been labeled a major non-NATO ally, a distinction that affords the Egyptian government with greater access to the best military technology and weapons platforms the United States has to offer.

However, a partnership that was once rooted in a few bedrock principles—Cairo maintains peace with Israel and provides Washington with a strategic partner in the Middle East, and the U.S. provides the Egyptians with $1.3 billion a year in military assistance in return—is now an increasingly complicated marriage. Rather than continuing the relationship as if the strategic environment has not changed over the past 40 years, the U.S. needs to get smarter with its national security strategy and more frugal with the American people’s taxpayer money.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. has given Egypt about $47 billion in security assistance since the Camp David peace agreement was signed in 1979. With the exception of Israel, no other country on the planet has been on the receiving end of so much generosity from the American people.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment’s justification for maintaining the current aid package to Egypt has become a tired cliché. The American people are told that their taxpayer dollars buy valuable leverage with a critical partner in a turbulent region, from a solid counterterrorism relationship against Islamic extremists to overflight rights that shorten the amount of time the U.S. Air Force needs to travel.

But leaving the politics aside and evaluating the returns on investment, are these benefits worth the cost of tens of billions of dollars over a span of decades? Evidence strongly suggests that the answer is no.

Inside the Beltway, the Egyptian defense establishment is often considered an effective partner for the U.S. against terrorist groups in the region. The Trump administration has pointed to stronger Egyptian cooperation on the terrorism problem as a major factor in its decision to release a combined $390 million in security aid in July and August, which was previously frozen over human rights concerns. What U.S. officials usually refuse to acknowledge, however, is that a counterterrorism partnership with the United States is just as vital to Egyptian security—likely more so.

Indeed, Cairo relies on U.S. military hardware, from combat jets to tanks and artillery, in its ongoing operation to combat a years-old Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula (an insurgency that does not have the capability to attack the U.S. in any way). Were it not for this assistance, the Egyptian security forces would be taking even higher casualties than it currently suffers. And yet the Trump administration has treated Egypt as if U.S. national security would be at imminent risk without Cairo’s cooperation.

This interpretation, of course, suits the Egyptian government just fine, which is more than happy to acquire F-16 fighters without spending a dime of their own financial resources while often disregarding American military advice.

Advocates of continued U.S. aid to Egypt use another argument that, while persuasive at first, is a red-herring. The logic plays on the foreign policy establishment’s fear for all things Russian; if Washington downgrades or reforms its relationship with Egypt in any way, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will have no choice but to retaliate by reaching out to the Kremlin and replace the U.S. with Russia as the foreign ally of first resort. The signing of a preliminary deal in November 2017, which permits Russian aircraft to use Egyptian airfields, only solidified this concern about Cairo’s drifting into Russia’s orbit.

But this, too, is an argument based more in innuendo than evidence. Egypt is no more likely to become a Russian vassal state in the Middle East as it was to be an American one. Although Egypt may be willing to take free money from foreign powers with no strings attached, Cairo is fiercely independent of its prerogatives and has its own set of national interests guiding its actions. What Moscow views as important, Cairo may dismiss as marginal.

Nor are the Russians likely to be as generous as the Americans have been over the past 40 years. Unlike Washington, which has upheld an aid relationship that is lopsided to Cairo’s benefit to the misfortunate of the American taxpayer, the Kremlin is far more transactional in its dealmaking. The worry that Egypt would totally jettison the United States in favor of Russia is both misguided and specious. Even worse, such a belief  will only provide fuel for those who believe that the U.S.-Egypt aid relationship should continue as is, perpetuating an unacceptable status-quo in which the American people continue to be swindled with few tangible deliverables to show for it.

President Trump based much of his foreign policy platform on renegotiating deals for the United States. He likely won the presidency due to his message of standing up for the American people and ending agreements that do not enhance American security and prosperity. If he wants to live up one of his biggest campaign promises, President Trump should reassess U.S. military aid to Egypt and bring it down to a level that is appropriate to the benefits Cairo provides the United States. 

The way Egypt is behaving, it is simply a bad deal for Washington to continue to ritualistically open its wallet without thinking about the return on investment. Foreign assistance should be earned, not treated as an unquestioned entitlement.  Above all, Washington’s generosity must serve the interests of the United States, and benefit the American people—especially the taxpayers who fund it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on September 17, 2018. Read more HERE.