Since the 2011 Arab Spring swept through the Middle East calling for reform, good governance, freedom, and democracy, almost every government has been replaced by a far more authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, many of these states, most notably Egypt, continue to receive U.S. aid even though it has grown less democratic. U.S.-Egyptian relations highlight how Washington’s policy towards the largest Arab state and the region as a whole remains terribly short-sighted – despite the continuing process of autocratic meltdown.
The U.S. Seeks Continuity
In post-Arab Spring Egypt, U.S. policy has been unclear, but one strategy is obvious: Maintain bilateral relations with whomever is in power in the interest of ensuring stability in the country and the broader region. Though this strategy might seem to serve the protection of U.S. national security, it makes Washington appears as an inconsistent player whose approach in the Middle East is unclear. The United States should note that its apparent alignment with undemocratic actors in the region encourages the kind of authoritarian behavior that creates instability and insecurity in the long run.
To the U.S. security establishment, Egypt’s primary strategic value lies in its role as chief regional guarantor of peace with Israel – alongside a host of security functions including over-flight rights, Suez Canal access, and counter-terrorism cooperation. These elements have been instrumental to bolstering U.S. strategic interests in the region over the last four decades. Washington has also been able to count on Cairo’s diplomatic assistance on a wide range of issues, from multiple rounds of Arab-Israeli peace efforts to its contribution to coalition forces. However, Egypt does these things not as favors to the United States but because they are also in the Egyptian national interest.
The Pursuit of Democracy
For decades, the United States has supported an autocratic leader in Egypt in hopes it would lead to stability and security. The Arab Spring proved that this is no longer the case. Autocracy, no matter how seemingly “stable,” is unsustainable. The struggle for freedom, dignity, and democracy cannot be suppressed, and the route to long-term stability in the region is through a long-term commitment to democracy.
The millions that poured into the streets during the Arab Spring were calling for change. Suppressing that call would lead to one of two circumstances – if not both. The first is a counter-revolution that would be more violent the second time because the state would respond with violence, as in the case of Syria. The second is an increase in terrorism, because the more authoritarian a state becomes, the more likely the public is to respond with direct attacks on state institutions at first, and then on the civilian population as a means of undermining the state.
The rise in violence is already taking place in Egypt and it is related directly to the military-backed regime’s increasingly heavy-handed policies. In many ways, Egypt is spiraling toward instability, radicalization, and increased state repression. This is both unstable in the short term and detrimental to U.S. interests in the long term. In this regard, the United States’ belief that autocracy equals stability does not hold up. Only a commitment to the promotion of democracy will lead to long-term stability.
Trump’s Support for al-Sisi
After his election, U.S. President Donald Trump phoned Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and pledged his support for the authoritarian ruler. When al-Sisi visited Washington last year, the administration gave him a warm welcome, reversing an Obama Administration policy of declining to meet with the former general because of his government’s sweeping human rights abuses. And last month, when al-Sisi ran virtually unopposed in an election marred by repressive tactics and opposition elimination, the Trump Administration praised the vote.
It seems that the United States is embracing Egyptian authoritarianism for the sake of a very narrow interpretation of strategic interests. But this policy approach will not guarantee Washington’s interests, as we have already seen. In the past year, a North Korean ship was seized off Egypt with a huge cache of weapons; al-Sisi has taken positions on Syria that run counter to U.S. interest; and Cairo has sided with Moscow on the nuclear deal. Yet the Trump continues to openly embrace al-Sisi.
How the U.S. Could Change Course
Washington must realize that its current policy towards Egypt will create the very conditions it seeks to avoid and therefore must engage in a course correction. Such a shift entails redefining U.S.-Egyptian cooperation in the short term in order to ensure long-term stability. The Trump administration must use its influence with the al-Sisi regime to steer the latter towards gradually opening up space for normal political life. The next round of parliamentary elections are due in less than two years; Washington must push for transparent and fair election polls. The United States should also emphasize that inclusive economic growth should be coupled with support for human rights and the rule of law. But the key thing in all of these efforts is to get the military-dominated regime to accept that the much needed reforms are in the Egyptian national interest.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.