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March 14, 2017

The Trump Administration Should Forge a New Relationship with Egypt, One Based on Both Security and Human Rights

The Trump Administration is ramping up its efforts to strengthen security cooperation with Egypt. This is probably the right thing to do, provided it’s coupled with an effort to press Egypt on human rights and spur progress towards promised political reform.

A new administration in Washington presents an opportunity to turn a page in an important bilateral relationship that has soured alarmingly in recent years to the detriment of both countries and the region as a whole. The Obama Administration lost respect and trust from all parties in Egypt by being seen as too willing to adjust its positions to accommodate the supposed preferences of the ruler of the moment. The Trump Administration should take a new approach of standing up consistently for universal values both because it is the right thing to do, and because it best serves U.S. interests. 

Friendly contacts between President Trump and President Sisi have been consolidated by meetings between Egyptian Foreign Minister Shukri and senior Trump Administration officials, including Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster.  

Speaking in Washington last summer, before the election, now Secretary of Defense Mattis indicated his support for resuming the Bright Star joint military exercises with Egypt: 

“…we’re concerned about any political system has to have a counterweight, and whether or not there is a sufficient allowance for legitimate political dissent. But that said, right now the only way to support Egypt’s maturation as a country with civil society, with democracy, is to support President el-Sisi. We should have Bright Star reinstituted, perhaps not with tank battles but with counterterrorism-type training…” 

Mattis is right to be concerned about the narrowing space for political dissent, but he is probably also right that the only way to persuade Sisi that he should move away from harsh repression is to offer him some reassurance. The United States is Egypt’s most valued security partner and resuming joint military exercises would send a clear message of support that the Egyptians grew to doubt under the previous administration.

President Sisi is also angling for an invitation to visit President Trump at the White House, a level of recognition pointedly denied to him by President Obama. Again, if Sisi might be made more willing to move forward with essential political reforms by the sign of approval that a White House visit would represent, then it should be considered. 

The Trump Administration should make clear that it is prepared to improve relations with Cairo and that it views Egypt as a valued partner, but also underline the reality that the partnership can only flourish to the benefit of both parties if Sisi changes course on human rights. Such a change is necessary to restore stability and sustainable social peace in Egypt and to ensure that Egypt is an effective partner in the global struggle against terrorism.  

The United States has no reason to pursue a partnership with Egypt as long as it remains a harsh dictatorship facing compounding economic and security challenges while pursuing counterproductive policies that make these challenges worse.  

The United States is at risk of being held hostage by an authoritarian leader who thinks he knows that his country is too big to fail, and that therefore its international allies will always support him because of the absence of alternatives. Blackmail is a terrible basis for a relationship supposedly based on mutual support around common interests. 

The Trump Administration at the highest levels should speak clearly and consistently to Egypt’s leaders about the concrete reforms it expects to see in Cairo. These should include an end to the sustained attack on independent human rights organizations, progress in ending engrained institutional discrimination against religious minorities, an end to disappearances and torture, the release of prisoners detained after unfair trials for nonviolent political offenses, and the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression. 

President Sisi has received praise for his repeated calls for reform in Islam to combat the threat of violent extremism. Progress has been patchy at best. Sisi must recognize that there can be no credible reform while religious institutions operate within the framework of rigid state restrictions. Any reforms that leaders of influential institutions, like al-Azhar, might support would have little credibility if it appeared that they were being carried out under state pressure. Similarly, as long the government suppresses peaceful dissent and stifles pluralism, it is part of the problem. To be an effective partner in the global fight against violent extremism the Egyptian government must stop creating the very grievances that are exploited by violent extremists.