Will Cuts To Egyptian Military Aid Impact The Sinai Conflict?

Relations between Egypt and the USA have soured over the latter’s decision to cut millions in aid. $300 million has been denied in all, about half of which was designated for military spending.

Egypt reacted with fury, as would be expected. In a statement, the country’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of exercising ‘poor judgement’ and of ‘adopting a view that lacks an accurate understanding of the importance of supporting Egypt’s stability.’ Their reaction was swift: Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a key White House official, was snubbed when his meeting with Egypt’s Foreign Minister was abruptly cancelled.

This cut in spending is supposedly due to the Egyptian government’s crackdown on civil liberties. Specifically, the US takes issue with a new law which enables President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to regulate and monitor Egypt’s many NGOs. However, this is unlikely to be the reason why the United States has withdrawn funding, which they have provided to Egypt since the 1978 Camp David Accords. Robert Springborg, of the Italian Institute of Foreign Affairs, suggested to Al Jazeera that this move is part of Trump’s ‘getting tough approach’, where he would like to see US allies be more militarily self-sufficient. Alternatively, the withdrawal of military funding may just be the result of administrative chaos. According to James Gelvin, Professor of Middle East History at the University of California, the move is probably a temporary one – a result of the ‘current dysfunction in the State Department.’

So why is Egypt asking for military aid in the first place? The greatest source of conflict in the region is the Sinai Peninsula, where many Islamist militants are based. After the Egyptian revolution in 2011, a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis emerged, no doubt seeking to capitalise on the chaos following then-President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Their conflict with the government deepened after the latter cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, treating it as a terrorist organisation. In response, Ansar Beit has attacked civilians at Cairo University and at the Museum of Islamic Art, among other incidents. They were also responsible for the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor, in 2015. Most of Ansar Beit has since become a branch of ISIS, thereby placing the conflict in Egypt into part of a wider, regional struggle.

Given the U.S aid cuts, one would assume that Egypt’s ability to fight the Sinai insurgency would be hampered. This might not be so, however. For a start, America’s gesture may be largely symbolic – a show of disapproval over Egypt’s human rights situation – rather than an actual change in policy. This is the view of Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She believes that ‘Egypt will still receive the vast majority of its $1.3 billion in military assistance.’ Even if the cuts are genuine, they may not be enough to influence policy. Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, believes that America’s decision ‘does not have any practical impact on the Egyptian military’s ability to conduct operations in the Sinai’.

If the experts are right, the conflict in the Sinai Peninsula looks set to continue. Moreover, as ISIS is pushed out of the Levant, it also looks set to escalate. Still, just because the Egyptian government can pursue a military path, does not mean they necessarily should. While it is important to contain groups like ISIS, a heavy-handed approach risks alienating people, making them more susceptible to extremist propaganda. It will ultimately be a time which destroys the militants, as their cruelty and nihilistic destructiveness increasingly erode their base of support. President Sisi of Egypt should consider this as he decides his country’s policies, with or without American military aid.