Egypt Doesn’t Deserve US Aid
“I never thought I would live to see the end of the world. But that is exactly what we are living today in Lebanon. The end of an entire way of life.”
Those words are from a column this September by Lina Mounzer, a Lebanese writer and translator. Over the last 150 years, according to The New York Times, the world has witnessed only two financial meltdowns as severe as the one Lebanon is enduring today. It’s a monumental human crisis, which only occasionally makes the US press. Jim Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, has been studying Lebanon for decades. This Friday (we’re back to Fridays), he’ll join us to discuss the catastrophe in Lebanon, along with a fascinating poll of attitudes there, which Zogby Research has just conducted. Subscribe and you’ll also get access to all our previous discussions, with people like Noam Chomsky, Omar Barghouti, Ben Rhodes and Francis Fukuyama.
On October 24, according to the Wall Street Journal, Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan assured US envoy Jeffrey Feltman that he would not launch a coup against the civilian prime minister with whom he shared power. Then Burhan hopped on a plane to Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi—a fellow general who had taken power in a coup himself—promised Burhan that Cairo would back him if he seized power. The next day, October 25, Burhan did just that. Sudan is now a dictatorship once again. The military is shooting protesters in the streets.
The Biden administration responded by halting US aid to Sudan. That’s good, but insufficient. Biden should halt aid to Egypt too.
Egypt—to which the US gives $1.3 billion per year—is a police state. Its government jails an estimated 60,000 political prisoners. According to Freedom House, which ranks civil liberties across the world, Egypt scores below Russia and Venezuela. If that’s not bad enough, the regime in Cairo exports tyranny across the Middle East. Last month it encouraged Burhan’s coup in Sudan. In August it celebrated Kais Saied’s coup in Tunisia. Sisi, along with his patrons in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is determined to keep the Middle East as undemocratic as possible, lest his own brutalized subjects get the wrong idea.
In September, the Biden administration announced it would hold back ten percent of the money the US gives Egypt until Cairo improves its human rights record. But why is a president who in September pledged that his administration “will champion the democratic values that go to the very heart of who we are as a nation” giving Sisi the other ninety percent? What’s the point of claiming to support democracy in the Middle East when you’re simultaneously funding a regime that’s going all out to sabotage it?
As Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, has detailed, the arguments used to justify US aid make no sense. Originally, US assistance was a payoff for Anwar Sadat’s peace deal with Israel. But Egypt no longer requires bribing to stay on good terms with the Jewish state. The two countries are de facto allies. Bound by their common hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian wing, Hamas, they cooperate in imprisoning the people of Gaza. In 2018, Egypt even allowed Israel to carry out airstrikes on its soil.
The second argument for arming Egypt is that Sisi uses US weapons to battle members of the Islamic State who reside in the Sinai desert. But as former Obama administration National Security Council staffer Andrew Miller has noted, it was common knowledge in the Obama White House that “Egypt already had enough weapons to win against IS. The real problem was how the Egyptian military used those weapons.” It employed “overwhelming force against militants embedded in residential communities,” which “alienated the local Sinai population.”
Far from defeating jihadism, the Egyptian government’s brutality foments it. Miller reports that, “Sisi has presided over an unprecedented level of political repression that is fueling radicalization amongst Egyptian youth. Several prominent former Egyptian prisoners have reported that IS is finding new recruits among those jailed with hardened militants in over-crowded prisons.” The US may not be able to stop Sisi from doing this. But he doesn’t need to do it on our dime.
Defenders of US aid also claim it guarantees the passage of ships through the Suez Canal. But as Miller explains, this is misleading. In fact, “the U.S. Navy, like all other navies, pays the Egyptian government a fee for each ship that transits the canal. These fees are an important source of foreign currency, making it very unlikely Cairo would block U.S. ships from using the canal.”
Finally, some warn that if the US stops arming Egypt its government will turn to US adversaries like Russia. But as Whitson notes, between 2015 and 2019 Egypt already bought more than twice as a high a percentage of its arms from Russia as from the US. If that figure tilts further in Russia’s direction because the US cuts off aid, so what? As Moscow learned in 2015, when the Islamic State blew up a Russian airliner flying over the Sinai, outside powers that arm oppressive Middle Eastern regimes tend to provoke terrorism against their own citizens. If Vladimir Putin wants to play that game, let him. The US has played it long enough.
A US president who wants to fortify both America’s domestic infrastructure and its global reputation can find better uses for $1.3 billion than giving it to a murderous tyrant intent on cloning himself across the Middle East. In a tweet condemning Sisi during last year’s presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed, “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’” After what Sisi has just done to Sudan, Biden should update that slogan: No checks at all.
How would the media react if Ilhan Omar said this?
Dazzling, haunting photos of the beach in Gaza City and Tel Aviv.
Last week, for the Foundation for Middle East Peace, I interviewed both Shawan Jabareen, the director of Al Haq, one of the six Palestinian human rights groups Israel banned last month, and Knesset member and human rights attorney Gaby Lasky, who has defended some of those groups in court.
In Jewish Currents, Hannah Black traces the rise of Black-Palestinian solidarity.
See you Friday,