Rethinking United States Ties With Egypt

In the United States history, backing a military or fascist leader has created issues for its reputation. This has been true in Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and many other countries. What this does is leads to the ire of many countries’ citizens and people towards the United States, seeing their lack of freedom as partly the United States fault. Because the United States has propped, supported and aided the regimes, the fault does lie at least in part at their feet. Under the Obama administration, tolerance for human rights violations was reduced but not eliminated. These policies are seen in countries like Egypt, where they still received American aid. Acceptance of human rights abuses is seen in Saudi Arabia as well. The United States influence in Saudi Arabia and other Arabic countries has lead many terrorist organizations to rise in response to perceived United States imperialism (Byman, 2015). The United States, to curb Islamic extremism, should remove support from dictatorships resulting in an increase in domestic support for Islamic terrorist groups and countries, with today’s primary example being in Egypt.

President El-Sisi, of Egypt, has an extensive list of human rights violations up against him. These include a lack of accountability for many killings of protesters by security forces, mass detentions, military trials of civilians, hundreds of death sentences, and the forced eviction of thousands of families in the Sinai Peninsula (Human Rights Watch, 2015). These violations lead to an impoverishment of the local populations and strong opinions against the El-Sisi government. These violations have increased and assisted groups, such as ISIS, in recruiting, where they look to expand their influence after losing much of it in Syria and Iraq (Kessler and Peck, 2017). These policies go directly against the United States’s interests, as they are trying to curb ISIS’s influence in the region. Egypt’s continued domestic oppression only helps ISIS.

United States Policy Towards El-Sisi

The United States backed El-Sisi after the coup that he organized against a democratically elected Islamist government. It is important to note that the Egyptian government that existed before the coup, despite its Islamist leanings, was openly backing and supporting the rights of Christians. Mohamed Morsi, the president at the time, even though backed off promises to appoint a Christian as a Vice President, did end up appointing three women and two Christians to his cabinet (Michael, 2012). Even more importantly to the United States, Morsi was seen as a friendly face for Israel, and the security and intelligence coordination between Israel and Egypt thrived during his brief presidency (Gold, 2013). While accusations and hate crimes were committed against Christians, it is fair to say that these were not state sponsored, but rather an issue that was present with the population of Egypt. Morsi offered protections to Christians, but no president can ultimately stem the effects of a radical youth.
Despite these facts, the United States publicly supported the El-Sisi government that ousted Morsi. After the ouster, the United States even refused to refer to the takeover as a coup and continued to support the coup despite many Pro-Morsi protesters being killed by security forces (BBC, 2013). The United States briefly suspended aid due to the violations of human rights, but the aid was resumed in 2015 when President Obama cited security interests (BBC, 2017). John McCain became the first member of the United States Congress to call the coup for what it was, stating “We cannot repeat the same mistakes that we made in other times of our history by supporting the removal of freely elected governments” (Al Jazeera, 2013). It is also important to note that under Morsi’s government, over 35 political parties were represented in his advisory council. There were presidential elections to come. Despite this, the United States supported the preemptive strike against his presidency. It was claimed this was in the name of Democracy, but this was proven to be untrue by Morsi’s actual policies.

The results have been made clear in the years since the coup. Egypt now is under the one-man rule of President El-Sisi. Currently, ISIS is penetrating deep into the Sinai territory. In an ironic twist, it is even criticizing former President Morsi for his belief in a secular government for Egypt (Kessler and Peck, 2017). Despite this, President Trump recently hosted and supported President El-Sisi, offering continued United States support for both the Egyptian military and economy with 1.5 billion dollars annually (Tiefer, 2015). This aid only serves to entrench the El-Sisi regime further, making it more and more difficult for an actual democratic government to come about in Egypt. El-Sisi even requested an increase to the aid that the United States provides, but it is yet to be seen whether the United States will go along with the request due to recent cuts in the international aid budget (BBC, 2017). This funding has no direct instructions regarding what it needs to be spent on, so as a result, El-Sisi has increasingly spent the money in an irresponsible manner. The money has mostly been used to bolster heavy weaponry meant for ground wars, despite the United States supposed preference that it go to lighter technology that more directly will help with the issues that the United States wants to see solved (Dunn, 2017). It is possible that the money is being spent in this way to increase the crackdown on dissidents against the El-Sisi regime, which would mean that the United States is funding the repression of millions of Egyptian people.

The United States compliance with Egypt’s desires goes farther than just the money. El-Sisi strongly suggested that the United States designate the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization (BBC, 2017). The designation is a topic that is currently under consideration by the United States Congress. To designate the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization would further entrench the El-Sisi government because it would require the United States to intervene against a prominent opposition group that has already been imprisoned in masses by the Egyptian government (BBC, 2017). The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence years ago and have proven to be a moderate Islamist group that does not represent itself as an actual threat to the United States (Walters, 2017).

The United States, under President Trump, has thrown human rights to the side (Baker, 2017). While under the Obama administration, strong suggestions and desires were made clear for El-Sisi to alter his approach when it comes to dissidents and in a recent meeting with President Trump they were not even considered. Instead, talks revolved around a development of economic and security ties between the United States and Egypt. The White House even published a statement that praised the way that El-Sisi has handled security threats and economic development, which are considered the two biggest threats to his regime (Baker, 2017). Within Egypt, continued economic distress has been present even during the Morsi presidency, substantially weakening any attempts to develop a successful government. As a result of talks between Trump and El Sisi, an American who was imprisoned in Egypt for three years was released. Despite this, no results came for those from Egypt, showing that the United States human rights concerns only relate to actual American citizens, rather than the broader global population.

A New Approach

The approach that President Trump, and to a lesser degree President Obama, took with President El-Sisi is not the one that will lead to better security for United States interests in the Middle East. The fact is that dictatorships are inherently less stable, and they can result in long-term consequences. Latin America is littered with examples of United States influence backfiring, with a continued movement to spearhead a separation between Latin America and the United States still quite present, lead by Venezuela. The same applies when looking at Iran. The tense relations between the two countries is in part due to the support of the ouster of a democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, which lead to the 26-year monarchy of the Shah. As a result, the Iranian revolution took place, and since then the United States and Iran have perceived each other as threats.

United States backing of dictatorships does not help to bolster its interests because the support ends up supporting continued repressive policies (Yom, 2016). When the United States offers aid, despite no considerations being made for the long-term development of democracy, it leads to an uncomfortable situation coming about when the dictator continues to discount human rights, or when they are deposed. Examples are in Iran, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, and more. It puts the United States in the uncomfortable position of defending a government that murders its people on a global stage. Or, with a drastic change in government comes the potential for a radical shift in relations between the United States and whatever the country’s government is. When a government goes from a dictatorship to a democratic government, it changes its beliefs as well. These variations represent a challenge to United States diplomats.

So, instead of backing El-Sisi, the United States should cut off all aid to Egypt unless he shows significant progress in protecting the liberty of Egyptian citizens. This will force El-Sisi into a quandary. The aid that the United States offers to Egypt is crucial to the country. Egypt needs it to maintain the stability of its government. Cutting funding could force Egypt to adjust its policies, allowing for an increase in democracy, and, therefore, offer itself as more stable. It is important to say that it is not necessary for Egypt to become a democracy at the level of the United States. Instead, it is more important to show progress. That would allow for continued United States aid to Egypt, and allow for Egypt to offer itself as a more stable and able ally in supporting American interests. As time goes on, the United States could continue to evaluate Egypt’s domestic performance.

Another possibility is that Egypt could turn to other partners in the Middle East, which, despite popular opinion, is not a threat to the United States. El-Sisi has already become warmer towards Russia, as he has expressed support for Vladimir Putin (Al Jazeera, 2015). Despite what may seem a threat to United States interests, it does not exacerbate any problem that does not already exist. The fact is that one way or the other, El-Sisi has to fight back against ISIS, with or without the United States aid. When it comes to other conflicts such as in Libya and Syria, El-Sisi has already chosen his path of supporting the existing strongmen in Bashar al-Assad and Khalifa Haftar. His support of these oppressive regimes is something that was not changed by the United States, despite his support being in conflict with the United States stated interests on these issues. With El-Sisi becoming closer with Putin, it is important that the United States learn from its past. Given El-Sisi’s gravitation away from American desires across the Middle East, and his gravitation towards Russia, it is important that the United States not fall into the trap of a bidding war for Egyptian support. This happened in the past when President Nasser played the Soviet Union against the United States to secure the best position possible for Egypt (Kissinger, 1994). Instead, the United States should simply let Egypt go.

If the United States is to continue support to El-Sisi, it should also come with increased stipulations regarding the protection of United States interests. In Syria specifically, it should come for the endorsement of the removal of Assad from the presidency. Egypt has been friendly towards Israel, and that is something that should be continued. It is important to note that the United States should not be considering forcing a coup in Egypt, as that would just lead to more instability, and a potential vacuum for ISIS to fulfill. Instead, it should be made clear that the United States will not continue to finance violations of fundamental human rights. With improvement, aid could and would be extended, but other than that El-Sisi will have to look for other partners. These partners are limited by the domestic issues that El-Sisi faces, and the fact is that they are unlikely to change much of the dynamic within the Middle East. El-Sisi already has operated with impunity in regards to going against American interests. El-Sisi has even backed Iran, despite continued hostilities between Iran and the United States. With stipulations to financial aid, it could force El-Sisi to rethink any of these alliances that he has supported with nations directly or indirectly aligned with the United States.


Egypt has become a hotbed for recruitment and continued extremism under the El-Sisi regime. His harsh policies towards his population have served to make the problem worse in the past year. With the United States financial backing, El-Sisi has no reason to believe that it is necessary for him to change his ways. If the United States does threaten to remove this aid, it will help to force Egypt into being a more stable and democratic partner. If El-Sisi looks for other partners, then it will not drastically change the power dynamic in the Middle East because he is already in a corner when it comes to supporting the fight against ISIS, and support for Israel. The United States has a tainted reputation in the world as it is, but Egypt could represent a drastic shift in the United States policy that could help it in building up its good will with developing democracies throughout the world. If it continues to back oppressive regimes, it will only contribute to maintaining the proliferation of authoritarianism throughout the world.

Aran Hamilton-Grenham

I am a rising junior political science major at Stonehill College with a focus on American Government and Politics.

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