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December 10, 2014

How to Prevent Egypt Slipping into a Deepening Crisis

The United States government is confronted with a series of decisions about how to respond to a deepening political, economic, and human rights crisis in Egypt. Egypt remains important to U.S. national security interests—it‟s part of the alliance fighting against ISIS and is battling an insurgency in the Sinai that worries several countries in the region, including U.S. ally Israel, to name just the current front burner issues— but the increasingly authoritarian Sisi regime is destroying the political opposition, consolidating control over the institutions of government, and driving Egypt into an uncertain future of festering internal conflict and polarization. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership is largely in exile or in prison. Liberal opposition voices, independent NGOs and human rights defenders are attacked.

Egypt‟s direction under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not serve U.S. interests, yet the United States appears reduced to a role of bystander, acquiescing to president Sisi‟s actions, despite U.S. policy—articulated from the president on down—to support democratic development and civil society in Egypt. Human rights and democratic development have become more and more central to the debate over U.S. military aid, as Congress has put more human rights-related conditions and certifications on aid in the past few years.

Congress and the administration have several significant decisions before them now regarding military aid: Congress decides conditions for next year‟s aid in appropriations before the end of 2014; Congress and the administration must decide how to handle the delivery of the remainder of the current year‟s aid. The administration has withheld most of the 2014 military assistance because of concerns about the human rights situation—although its messaging on this question has been so opaque that confusion reigns about its current status, and influence that the administration could have wielded through seeking to uphold the conditions that Congress attached to the aid has dissipated.

In the short term, the U.S. government must decide these and other questions. U.S. military assistance to Egypt has for decades been a central part of the bilateral relationship and carries a greater symbolic significance than just the $1.3 billion annual appropriation. The Egyptian government seeks the seal of approval from the United States that the annual assistance represents, and many influential figures in the U.S. policy making process are keen to keep the aid relationship on a path it has followed since the Camp David Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978. The Obama Administration has not released more than half of last year‟s (FY 2014) Egypt Foreign Military Financing (FMF) appropriation because of concern over widespread violations in Egypt since the military takeover of July 2013. Pressures are now mounting on the administration to restore the interrupted flow of assistance, from U.S. arms manufacturers and from supporters of the President Sisi‟s authoritarian government (including powerful U.S. allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and from some influential members of Congress. There are also members of Congress in both parties who would like to see military assistance to Cairo curtailed or restructured, or who support strong human rights conditionality on the provision of further assistance to the Egyptian government.

An economic summit on Egypt planned for March 2015 provides another opportunity for the U.S. government to use its influence to advance human rights in Egypt.

The United States must decide how to confront attacks on human rights NGOs, including restrictions on U.S. funding to Egyptian civil society, and the persistent vilification of the U.S. government by Egyptian state media. It also needs to re-evaluate the overall aid package to Egypt and the fundamentals of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. The U.S. government needs to find better answers to the questions of what leverage it has with its Egyptian partner, and how to use that influence to better serve American and Egyptian interests. A failure to identify and deploy its leverage in recent years has led Washington to support a series of repressive, unpopular regimes in Egypt, in turn resulting in an erosion of U.S. credibility in the country and region.

This blueprint sets out specific recommendations for how Congress and the administration should address the current set of aid questions especially focused on support for Egypt‟s civil society and human rights defenders.

It is based on research conducted during a Human Rights First fact-finding trip to Egypt in November 2014, including dozens of discussions with human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, academics, lawyers, independent experts, officials from U.S. and other governments, and others.

This blueprint follows a series of recent Human Rights First reports on Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011, including Back to Square One: The U.S. Government and Political Change in Egypt, January 2014; How to Turn Around Egypt‟s Disastrous Post-Mubarak Transition, December 2013; Egypt: Attacks on the Media, May 2013; Egypt‟s Human Rights Crisis Deepens, March 2013; How to Make Change in Egypt a Human Rights Success Story, December 2012; Egypt‟s Transition to Democracy One Year On, January 2012 ; Promoting Reform in Egypt, November 2011; and How to Seize the Moment in Egypt, April 2011.

Download the Blueprint