Last year, the Obama administration conspicuously avoided using the word “coup” to describe the ouster of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. Doing so would have erected obstacles to sending $1.5 billion in military aid that the United States gives Egypt each year, in part to maintain a peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry went so far as to claim that the Egyptian military was “restoring democracy” when it got rid of Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who had alienated secular citizens.
Since Morsi’s arrest, though, Egypt has suffered from the worst repression the country has seen in decades. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political party, has been branded a terrorist organization. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been imprisoned or killed. Secular activists and journalists who have questioned the military’s actions have also been jailed. Two years after Morsi won the first free election in the history of modern Egypt, only two names will appear on the presidential ballot later this month: General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military figure who led the crackdown and is sure to win, and Hamdeen Sabahi, an activist who supported the crackdown.
In this environment, the United States must reconsider what it wants from its relationship with Egypt. Rather than cling to the fiction that Egypt is a solid ally on an eventual path to democracy, the United States should see it for what it is: a troubled country that shares some important US strategic interests but that, because of its dim outlook on human rights, can never be fully embraced.
In October, three months after Morsi’s arrest, US officials announced a partial suspension of military aid “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government.” But withholding “large-scale military systems,” including Apache helicopters, didn’t make much difference on the human-rights front. In recent weeks, hundreds of alleged Brotherhood supporters have been condemned to death in mass trials lasting less than an hour.
Now, it looks like the Obama administration has all but given up. Recently, the administration announced that it would send 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt anyway. It’s true that the United States has an interest in making sure that militant groups in the Sinai don’t get out of hand. And the Obama administration is still withholding some big-ticket items, including F-16s.
But resuming close military cooperation and relegating human rights to the back burner could turn out to be a disastrous policy in the long term. What does it mean to help Egypt’s military fight terrorism when the largest political party in the country has been classified as a terrorist group?
To be sure, there are no easy solutions in Egypt. It would be unwise to completely abandon a strategic alliance in the region. Vladimir Putin has already made clear that Russia will sell arms to Cairo if Washington walks away. But the Obama administration must obtain better assurances that its military aid won’t be used against peaceful civilians.