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Cairo bombing site (Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Image: Reuters/M.A. El Ghany

US policy toward Egypt

Michael Knigge
August 20, 2015

The bomb that rocked Cairo today serves as a reminder that despite the Sissi government’s increasingly authoritarian clampdown Egypt is neither stable nor secure. This should worry the Obama administration.


The massive blast that targeted a security building in Cairo this morning, injuring at least 29 people - many of them police officers - went off just days after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi signed off on a new controversial "anti-terrorism" law. This is likely no coincidence as it shows that extremist groups like the ‘Islamic State,' which claimed responsibility for the attack, are unfazed by the new "counter-terrorism" rules meant to curb their activities.

Egypt's political trajectory should also give pause to Washington, which only recently fully restored the close ties it traditionally had with Cairo under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. In March, the Obama administration announced it would resume military aid to the country worth $1.3 billion. The funds were frozen as a response to a military coup against Egypt's first democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.

Increasing instability

Obama's decision, justified by "shared challenges to US and Egyptian interests in an unstable region," makes Egypt once again the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. During his recent visit to Cairo, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the importance of Egypt as a close ally despite Washington's "grave concern" about the handling of certain issues by the Sissi government.

"The US has given the Sissi government a lot of slack since the election of Sissi as president," said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. That is because Washington views its ties to Cairo mainly from a security perspective. "But as we can see it is the policies of the Sissi government that are actually increasing instability in Egypt. And this is ultimately not in the US national interest."

For Fawaz Gerges, author of "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment," Washington's shift towards continued engagement with Cairo is emblematic of the president's foreign policy:

John Kerry and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt (Photo: REUTERS/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL)
John Kerry said US-Egyptian ties would return to a 'stronger base'Image: Reuters/B. Smialowski

"The Obama approach towards Egypt is pure 'realpolitik.' Obama prioritizes the national interest and geostrategic calculations at the expense of democracy promotion and the rule of law. As president, Obama is a realist par excellence."

US should push for reconciliation

That is not to say that a different US stance toward Egypt would be easy or would necessarily pay off, said Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. "The challenge facing the US is to push hard for reconciliation in Egypt and bridging the social and political divide between the government and the opposition."

But Obama has not even really tried even though Egypt's dependence on American aid gives Washington tremendous leverage, both Gerges and Khatib said.

The US first turned a blind eye to human-rights violations under the Morsi government and now is doing the same with Sissi. "This has meant completely sidelining any moderate opposition voices in Egypt today who could have provided a way to hold the government accountable," Khatib said.

Unused leverage

"From the beginning the Obama administration has made a minimalist investment in Egypt," said Gerges. "Neither the Middle East nor Egypt ranks high on the Obama administration's foreign-policy priorities."

To be sure, Washington criticized Egypt's new "anti-terrorism" law, which essentially grants the government permanent "state of emergency" powers. But that is unlikely to have an impact on Cairo.

"Let's not forget that this is a regime that oversaw the Raba'a Massacre, which Human Rights Watch concluded was a serious violation of international human rights law, but also likely amounted to a crime against humanity," said Simon Mabon, director of the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies at Lancaster University.

To influence the Sissi government's behavior, more than lip service is required, Khatib said. "What we need to see is concrete measures saying to Egypt that aid can only be given if it is linked to measures of accountability on the part of the government. This is the only way that Egypt can be pushed to engage in some much-needed reform."

More attacks, more human rights violations

As things stand, the political landscape is bleak, Mabon said, because "the Sissi regime has systematically removed any scope for political opposition in Egypt, mobilizing once more the remnants of Mubarak's 'deep state,' which has resulted in the dreams born in Tahrir Square in early 2011 being all but vanquished."

Muslim Brotherhood trial (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The Sissi government has cracked down hard on the Muslim BrotherhoodImage: Getty Images/AFP

While the Obama administration may calculate that its support for the Sissi government - despite its gross legitimacy and human rights problems - is Washington's only viable option to counter the Islamist threat in Egypt and the region, that scenario may ultimately backfire.

"Without political reconciliation, security and economic conditions will likely worsen in the coming years," said Gerges. If current trends continue, there will only be more human rights violations in Egypt sanctified by the country's new “anti-terror” law, Khatib said.

"This will only increase resentment on the Egyptian streets which in turn means increased insecurity in the country," she said. "And the explosion that we witnessed in Cairo this morning is just going to be an example of what's to come."

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