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US military aid will further strangle Egypt's democracy

April 7, 2015 at 6:23 pm

On April 1, US President Barack Obama restored US military aid to Egypt. It is a stunning volte-face for the United States government, which rightly withdrew military assistance following the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

As the tap of military aid flows once more, $1.3bn is now available to the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. New F-16 fighter jets, Abrams tanks and harpoon missiles will soon be at the disposal of Egypt’s armed forces. The country will be the second largest recipient of foreign military financing from the US, after Israel.

Nothing could better symbolise the restoration of the status quo of US-Egyptian relations going back decades – where the real politik of supporting Middle Eastern strongmen that serve the interests of the United States rode roughshod over democracy and human rights.

Erosion of ideals

In fact, last week’s announcement reflects the gradual erosion of the dreams and ideals of the Arab Spring, not only by the return of dictatorial strongmen and vested interests, but also the willing cooperation of western nations. Now for the West, it seems, imminent security concerns – from ISIL to a failing Yemen – take priority over freedom and democracy.

While the cancer of extremism must be met head on, it is evident that the tacit support of a new autocracy in Egypt is a willing sacrifice to make for the US as it watches the Middle East enter the most complex and dangerous chapter in modern history.

The resumption of military aid is even more remarkable considering just how far the pendulum has swung away from reform. Sisi has taken the worst excesses of the Mubarak era and gone further than even his harshest critics expected. While the illegal detention of the three Al Jazeera journalists garnered the most international attention, it is only the very tip of a deeper wave of authoritarianism that has swept the country since the 2013 coup.

Today, demonstrations are all but impossible and Sisi holds an iron grip over the state media. The oxygen for criticism has disappeared. Political opposition and peaceful Islamists have been criminalised and vilified.

And now a legislative amendment introduces harsh penalties for organisations that receive funds that result in harming “national interests”. The punishment? Life in prison. This law clearly aims to sever funding for NGOs. Sisi knows that a suffocated civil society is vital to the tightening of his grip on power.

But the sale of arms raises more fundamental questions about what those very weapons are used for. Human Rights Watch reported on a vicious crackdown in a Cairo demonstration camp. The organisation was subsequently banned from entering the country.

And in Sinai, where a nascent insurgency is causing the government real difficulties, American-supplied Abrams tanks have shelled civilian buildings.

Rubber-stamping the coup?

Obama insists he is not rubber-stamping the coup with this move. While thinly veiled statements about “frank and direct” conversations may placate some, for those in Cairo the American change of tone is surely the end of their charm offensive.

Back room conversations between diplomats are all well and good, but what else demonstrates a more concrete declaration of friendship than the sale of billions of dollars of arms?

The Americans must also ask themselves what their role in the region should be. In September 2014, Russia agreed to a $3.5bn arms deal with Egypt. And in February, Egypt mediated a further arms deal between Russia and Libya.

With the US wading into this arms bonanza, Sisi cannot believe his luck as the fear of a collapsing Middle East means the US joins its enemy Russia in flooding Egypt with military hardware, all the while jettisoning any chance for political reform. Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely be amused at the hypocrisy of American policy while the drama in Ukraine rumbles on.

In the long term, there is a profound irony to the approach of the US. Their resumption of military aid is founded on a fear of increasing instability in North Africa and the Middle East. The State Department’s logic is that a strong Egypt will act as a bulwark against the creeping influence of ISIL in the region.

Yet their betrayal of the ideals of the Arab Spring – including the abandonment of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and its associated moderate Islamists – means millions of disillusioned Egyptians have no voice.

As Sisi’s regime grows more brutal, these disaffected and repressed will be forced to the extremes of the Egyptian political landscape. The US must be wary that their actions are viewed with despair by millions of ordinary Egyptians, who have witnessed the call for freedom ignored at home, and now abroad.

As the US embraces dictatorship in Egypt once again, it may find its arms will only fuel instability and extremism, rather than prevent it. 

Yehia Hamed is the former Egyptian minister for investment, and co-founder of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Freedom and Justice Party. This article was first published on Al-Jazeera on Monday 6th April 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.