Turning a Page on Egypt?

April 01, 2015

The Obama administration released a remarkable set of decisions on Egypt policy yesterday which, if followed through and supported by Congress, could signal a dramatic shift for US-Egypt relations.

First, though, the White House noted that President Obama had informed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he will lift the hold on military items held back by the US post the coup Sisi led against Egypt's first democratically-elected President and his brutal crackdown on protesters in August 2013.  That sounds like–and is–business as usual.  Principles and policies have been violated, thousands disenfranchised and imprisoned, even US citizens tortured and held without due process in Egyptian jails.  But the region is unstable, terrorism is on the rise, so . . . let's give 'em some more tanks and guns, even if Egypt's tactics may well be contributing to ever greater radicalization and violence.

BUT in an on-the-record press comment from the NSC spokesperson are two remarkable changes in Egypt policy.  Beginning in FY 2018, the US will eliminate Egypt's cash flow financing, a financial privilege that allows them to purchase military equipment on an assumption of future appropriations—a kind of credit card for the Egyptian military, linked to a US bank account funded by Congress.  Eliminating it signifies a huge change in the US relationship with Egypt—a loss of the "special status" it previously shared only with Israel.  It gives the US much greater flexibility to alter its security posture with Egypt should the Egyptian military (continue to) take actions counter to US interests.

Further, the Administration is taking actions to ensure that the military assistance it provides is directed to US strategic priorities—border security, maritime security, and counterterrorism. For over thirty years, US military assistance has been used to fund the purchase of equipment ill-suited for today's security challenges (preferred by Egyptian generals), but that funded Egypt's military industrial complex and lined the pockets of military leadership.  That's going to change, though the devil's in the implementation details. 

Together, these decisions alter what for decades has been an entitlement for the Egyptian military and begins to lift the thumb off the scale that has empowered Egypt's military at the expense of hoped-for civilian leadership.  Only when the Egyptian military's tremendous reach into Egypt's economy, political, and security structures is curtailed will opportunities for real political reform emerge.  Egypt's government will undoubtedly spin the Obama Administration's decision as an affirmation of its leadership and Egypt's strategic importance, but the US is beginning to turn the page on Egypt—as it should.


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