Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at a workshop on aid conditionality that DAWN cohosted with the MIT Center for International Studies.
On April 7, I wrote an op-ed for DAWN's journal, Democracy in Exile—"U.S. Aid to Egypt Does Not Aid the People of Egypt. It Harms Them." I went as far as saying that conditional U.S. military and economic aid, supposedly for human rights reforms, is not effective anymore. Rather, it is being used as a green light for the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa to continue their brutal political behavior against dissidents and against society at large.
Since 2011, the region entered a new chapter with the Arab spring and the overthrow of many of its leaders. Despite the subsequent counterrevolutions and the return of old regimes, it is still very clear that things won't go back to what they were before. Dealing with the region in the same ways prior to 2011 is proving to be a failure, even if the situation in many countries might be worse in the meantime.
Nowhere is this more urgent than in Egypt. U.S. administrations all supported President Hosni Mubarak's regime and called him a close ally and a friend, up until his overthrow in 2011. With the return of the old regime under the new guise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Washington tried to go back to the old rules of its relationship with Egypt. But the whole game has changed, as new players have come in to the region and the Sisi regime itself has changed its behavior in dealing with the U.S.
President Donald Trump was a pure supporter of Sisi—his "favorite dictator"— and didn't care at all about the region; if Israel was happy with Sisi, then Trump was OK with him, too. It is crystal clear that resuming the same model of support and aid under President Joe Biden will prove to be another failure. The Biden administration should take more bold steps to achieve its own interest in a fragile region, and to hold a real partnership with Egypt, rather than with an authoritarian leader who might face another wave of protests and unrest ahead.
There have been some small signs of progress. The U.S. and 30 other countries signed a rare joint statement at the U.N. Human Rights Council in March condemning Egypt's human rights violations. But words without action are meaningless, especially against dictators. Why would Sisi worry about an American condemnation when the U.S. still approved a $197 million sale of missiles to Egypt two days after the arrest of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan's relatives in Egypt in February?
"Ending U.S. aid to Egypt does not mean ending America's relationship with Egypt or foregoing its real interests there. Rather, it means rightsizing and normalizing it. The U.S. can pay for overflight rights and Suez Canal access, just like every other government that pays rents for them."
- Yehia Hamed
After all these years, the reasons for the massive U.S. aid program to Egypt should be looked over and reconsidered, especially with a new administration in Washington. Egypt has developed new relationships with other countries, both economically and security-related, that prove that Egypt is no longer dealing with the U.S. as its favored partner. Take the arms deals that Sisi's regime has made—more than $14.5 billion in sales in the past five—which are a good indicator of the many new players in Cairo. The numbers also reflect why it's absurd to suggest that Egypt's is a poor regime that needs U.S. support as a yearly allowance. As Trump once said, they take our money and buy weapons from Russia.
If the point of U.S. military aid is to make sure that Egypt's regime can fight insurgencies in places like the Sinai Peninsula, why have the number of insurgent attacks in fact multiplied in the past few years, turning parts of Sinai into a war zone? And if America's economic support is to help the Egyptian people out of a dire economic situation, why is Egypt's economy still stuck in crisis, as many reports show?
So, it is fair to ask, what is U.S. support really for? Is Egypt even benefiting from it? I must say it is not now, at all.
The last assumption about U.S. aid to Egypt is that it was part of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The U.S. had always been the one mediating that relationship, but even that has not been true more recently, especially with the very close ties and some would even say partnership between Sisi and Israeli's recently ousted prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
"The reality is that America's economic and military aid has had no positive impact on the lives or security of Egyptian citizens."
- Yehia Hamed
The reality is that America's economic and military aid has had no positive impact on the lives or security of Egyptian citizens. Instead, it has helped crush them by facilitating the existence of a brutal regime. Since 2013, the Sisi government, massively funded by American taxpayers, has reached unprecedented levels of repression against its own people, including American citizens in Egypt. Today, there are still more than 60,000 political prisoners in Sisi's many jails.
U.S. military and economic assistance to Egypt's government has never been more than a series of blank checks to an autocratic, unaccountable military regime. It represents critical political support for the authorities in Cairo and a license to continue their repressive rule.
I once advocated for U.S. aid to be conditioned on human rights reforms. But such conditionality has proved useless in the case of Egypt, as successive U.S. administrations have automatically relied on "national security waivers" built into the American laws conditioning military aid, making the conditions completely irrelevant. Not one single instance of reform has been achieved through the pretend aid conditionality or threats of cuts. Sisi has occasionally released one or two prisoners in response to global campaigns, but promptly replaced these chits with new arrests of innocent Egyptians. The regime has easily gotten away with the vast majority of its state-sponsored human rights abuses.
Since 1987, Egypt has received roughly $1.3 billion in military aid annually and about $300 million in economic aid each year from the U.S., second only to Israel. Yet, more than 40 years after the Camp David Accords, when the aid rewarding Egypt for making peace with Israel started, the geopolitical context in the region has dramatically changed, hardly justifying such an investment anymore. Indeed, the relationship between Israel and Egypt has grown independent from any U.S.-funded incentive and would not be jeopardized by the end of American assistance.
The main justification for America's continued military aid to Egypt has most recently focused on counterterrorism support for its war in the Sinai against extremist militants. What was initially a tribal insurgency in 2011 has grown into an endless war against militants now affiliated with ISIS, encouraged by a disastrous military campaign. Instead of effectively defeating a small band of about 1,000 militants, the Egyptian army's sledgehammer approach has resulted in gross abuses against civilians there—razing 80 percent of farmland in North Sinai, demolishing thousands of homes, even entire villages and towns such as Rafah, displacing and evicting communities, and killing thousands.
U.S. economic and military aid also has enabled Egypt to save its own funds and buy weaponry from Russia, China and North Korea, despite U.S. attempts to counter the arms trade with these countries.
Ending U.S. aid to Egypt does not mean ending America's relationship with Egypt or foregoing its real interests there. Rather, it means rightsizing and normalizing it. The U.S. can pay for overflight rights and Suez Canal access, just like every other government that pays rents for them.
Egyptians want stability, security and peace, like people the world over. This is also one of America's greatest foreign policy interests. And yet, through its military and economic aid to Egypt, the U.S. has sponsored further instability, oppression and conflict in the region. Claims of economic progress under Sisi rely on top-down data that ignore the fact that foreign debt has tripled. Half of Egyptian households have to borrow money to meet their daily needs, like food.
The Biden administration has an important opportunity to live up to its promises to review America's relationships in the region and end a 40-year-old system that is no longer fit for purpose. This could be the beginning of a fairer partnership— fairer to Egyptians, and fairer to Americans as well.
Our region has been going through stormy days, but the process of change has only just begun. Regimes sponsored by wealthy Gulf countries have decided to squash all dissent and silence every voice, but this will never achieve real stability. Our people should not have to remember that a particular atrocity was blessed by the Biden administration, or dealt with by Washington as mere business as usual. U.S. military and economic support for Egypt's regime needs to stop now. It's time for a better course, finally.