Time to Rethink U.S. Relationship With Egypt
Since the Egyptian military took power in a coup in the summer of 2013, the Obama administration's policy toward Egypt has been moored in a series of faulty assumptions. The time has come to challenge them and to reassess whether an alliance that has long been considered a cornerstone of American national security policy is doing more harm than good.
When President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown, senior American officials dithered on whether there was any point in calling a coup a coup and expressed hope that this would be merely a bump on Cairo's road toward becoming a democracy.
Later that year when Egypt's human rights abuses became even harder to overlook, the White House suspended delivery of military hardware, signaling that it was willing to attach conditions to the $1.3 billion military aid package Egypt has treated as an entitlement for decades.
But for the most part, Egypt got gentle scoldings from time to time from senior administration officials, who were unduly deferential to Cairo.
A year ago, as the Obama administration focused on the fight against the Islamic State, it resumed delivery of military aid, arguing that the alliance with Egypt was too crucial to fail.
Since then, Egypt's crackdown on peaceful Islamists, independent journalists and human rights activists has intensified. Egyptian authorities appear intent on putting two of the country's top defenders of human rights out of business by freezing their bank accounts after charging them with illegally receiving foreign funds.
Outraged by the escalating repression, leading American Middle East experts — including two who served in the Obama administration — this week urged President Obama to confront President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
"If this crackdown is allowed to reach its conclusion, it will silence an indigenous human rights community that has survived more than 30 years of authoritarian rule, leaving few if any Egyptians free to investigate mounting abuses by the state," they wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama. They decried the arbitrary imprisonment of tens of thousands of Egyptians and the use of torture and extrajudicial killings, including the recent murder of an Italian student, that are believed to have been carried out by state security agents.
Administration officials who have cautioned against a break with Egypt say its military and intelligence cooperation is indispensable. It's time to challenge that premise. Egypt's scorched-earth approach to fighting militants in the Sinai and its stifling repression may be creating more radicals than the government is neutralizing.
"We are long overdue for a strategic rethink on who are strong American partners and anchors of stability in the Middle East," Tamara Cofman Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former senior State Department official, said in an interview. "Egypt is neither an anchor of stability nor a reliable partner."
Mr. Obama and his advisers may conclude that there is little the United States can do to ease Egypt's despotism during the remaining months of his presidency. That's not the case. Mr. Obama should personally express to Mr. Sisi his concern about Egypt's abuses and the country's counterproductive approach to counterterrorism.
Mr. Obama has been willing to challenge longstanding assumptions and conventions about Washington's relations with Middle East nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia. But he has been insufficiently critical of Egypt. Over the next few months, the president should start planning for the possibility of a break in the alliance with Egypt. That scenario appears increasingly necessary, barring a dramatic change of course by Mr. Sisi.