By: Leah Molayem
Should he follow through on his campaign rhetoric, Trump’s foreign policy agenda will focus heavily on a military commitment to destroy terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State. This will encourage stronger bilateral relations with Egypt.
Trump has vowed to defeat terrorist groups by working with traditional Arab allies in the Middle East. The admin now needs to recruit the full cooperation of a powerful Arab actor to secure American interests in the region. Egypt’s historically significant role as a stabilizing and credible leader makes it the most attractive candidate.
The US should reinvest in Egypt by earmarking fiscal aid for political, military, and economic reforms to make Egypt a more valuable partner in order to secure American interests in the Middle East / North Africa region.
The current political turmoil and civil unrest throughout the Middle East has created a unique opportunity for revamping the US-Egypt relationship.
Between the fallout from the September 11 attacks more than 15 years ago, through the discord of the consequences of the “Arab Spring,” US - Egyptian cooperation entered a period of mutual discontent. This dissatisfaction has lead to minimal engagement instead of a relationship built on mutual cooperation. Over the last decade, the US has slowly downgraded Egypt as a priority on its foreign policy agenda and has undervalued the country’s importance as an Arab ally.
Washington should not disregard the importance of maintaining strong ties with Egypt to further American foreign policy interests in the Middle East. However, this is easier said than done, especially when the American left and right remain so divided over how to interpret the meaning of the brief transition into - and then out of - Democracy that Egypt recently took. But at present, at least, the depth and intensity of US interests connected with the Egyptian relationship should be enough to overcome that.
Between 2011 and 2015, the US provided $6.5 billion in military assistance to Egypt. On top of that, the US continues to supply Egypt with $1.3 billion in aid annually, with Cairo justifying this eyebrow-raising expense by pointing to certain benefits it gives the US in being able to access to the Suez Canal. However, many years and dozens of broken promises later, the reality is that the US has not received what it paid for by any reasonable measure. The Obama administration failed to take advantage of Egypt’s potential as a regional partner to help fight America’s war on terror, and seemed to treat Cairo’s lack of cooperation as an invitation to continue supplying it with economic and military aid.
Trump has repeatedly vowed to wipe out terrorist groups. Similarly, concerned by the instability introduced by ISIS and the spread of anti-modern Islamist extremism, Egypt is trying to navigate its own war on terror. The US would be foolish not to take advantage of this current political climate to secure the full cooperation of the Egyptian state, and many of its religious leaders to counter anti-modern Islamic radicalism.
The administration needs to capitalize on both Cairo’s reliance on US assistance and its self-proclaimed interest in fighting terrorism at home by designating the majority of future financial aid packages to Egypt on joint counter terrorism initiatives. Future economic aid should be directly contingent upon Egyptian cooperation in counterterrorism endeavors. As a regional Arab ally, including Cairo in a more operational role for intelligence gathering, especially in anti-ISIS military campaign, would greatly contribute to American intelligence agencies understanding of terrorist enemies abroad and allow it to create better security strategies at home.
On top of which, the US needs to create a monitoring program attached to all military financing in order to ensure Egypt continues to hold up its end of the bargain. Failing to institute proper safeguards and compliance mechanisms would render future aid to Egypt useless in furthering America’s security interests.
Following September 11, the US-Egypt partnership expanded its scope and shifted focus to joint counter-terrorism efforts, with Egypt playing a more active role in a fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIL). Last year, Egypt became a member of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, to which militants in neighboring Libya and in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have pledged allegiance, and co-founded the global Counter-Terrorism Forum. Egypt currently c-chairs the working group on criminal justice and the rule of law with the US.
However, in the last several years Egypt has suffered both economic and reputational damages due to escalating internal infighting. Wide political unrest in Cairo following the Arab Spring followed closely by the 2013 military coup ousting of Mubarak tarnished Egypt’s pristine reputation as the dependable golden child of the Middle East. The current Sisi government has been condemned on multiple counts for banning freedom of expression and for being overly aggressive in responding to even the slightest signs of dissent or opposition, all of which has contributed to the country’s slowly crumbling economy. Undeniably, this has had a damaging effect on Egypt’s reputation.
Notwithstanding the unattractive realities that surround the Sisi government, Egypt has managed to hold on to- for the time being at least- some of the residual respect it fostered back in the heyday of Nasser and Sadat. Moreover, Trump views Sisi’s hardline approach in government, which oversaw a ban peaceful protests, unjustified imprisonment, and widespread government torture of detainees, as an asset and in alignment with his own tough on terrorism approach. The Trump administration has already shown eagerness to invest in Egypt based on its belief that it shares its zeal towards cracking down on anti-modern Islamist groups.
Because a moderate and prosperous Egypt is key to securing US interests in Middle East, the US must update US-Egypt relations. The country continues to host significant American investment in counter terror operations. As such, future military assistance packages ought to contain tight parameters centered around and contingent upon Egypt’s cooperation in joint counter terror intelligence initiatives.