The Obama administration’s decision to engage Egypt is “a case of realpolitik over idealism,” concedes one official. But it’s also the right policy choice.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi certainly doesn’t make it easy. His repression of dissent now rivals that of deposed president Hosni Mubarak. His campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood has broadened to include suppression of secular activists, some of whom helped bring him to power in 2013. Sissi’s subversion of democracy adds another sad chapter to the vexed modern history of Egypt.
But Egypt matters, especially now, when the Sunni Arab world is shaken by the twin earthquakes of Iran and the Islamic State. And President Obama should provide Egypt with economic, political and, yes, military support. The risks of letting Egypt slide are simply too great for a responsible administration to ignore.
If Obama has indeed decided that a strong Egypt is essential, he shouldn’t try to play both sides of the street. The Egyptian people, traumatized by four years of revolution and counterrevolution, need to know that the United States is truly an ally. Criticisms of human rights abuses should continue, but Washington should make clear that they come from a friendly nation that wants Egypt to succeed.
“Egypt is even more strategically important now than in the past because stabilizing the Middle East is crucial and we don’t have a lot of partners to help. If Egypt were to descend into chaos, that would compound the problem,” says Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser who visited Sissi in Egypt this month.
But Hadley cautions that Sissi can’t “oppress his way to stability” and that he will fail unless he takes a more inclusive approach. Rather than hectoring the Egyptian leader to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, which for most Egyptians is discredited, Hadley says the United States should urge Sissi to forge links with the young protesters who made the Tahrir Square revolution.
In the morality play that is Egyptian policy, Secretary of State John Kerry has been the leading advocate for engagement. Last year, he tapped as his informal emissary to Cairo David Thorne, a classmate at Yale and now a senior adviser at the State Department. That kind of personal touch should appeal to Egyptians, though it doesn’t seem to have elicited concessions on human rights.
Kerry rightly wants to focus on economic assistance. He plans to attend an “economic development conference” at Sharm el-Sheikh next month that will try to convince investors that Egypt is open for business again. Egypt’s economic case was bolstered by the International Monetary Fund this month, which forecast that GDP growth will rise from its 2 percent average over the past four years to 3.8 percent this year and gradually to 5 percent. That’s good news, but it will barely restore levels reached in the Mubarak era.
Egypt wants military assistance, too, and it has a better case now that Cairo is actively combating the Islamic State. After delaying military aid last December, Congress is prodding the administration to release $1.3 billion for F-16 fighters, Abrams tanks and other weapons. Those showpiece items won’t help much with Egypt’s most difficult security problems, which are a low-level insurgency in Sinai and regular bomb blasts in Cairo. But they won’t hurt, either. A powerful Egyptian military, armed and trained by the United States, is a plus for regional security.
A strong, U.S.-backed Egypt can stiffen the backbone of the Sunni world and ease fears that Washington is forming a new alliance with Iran. That’s the best argument for helping Sissi — that he can help restore the Sunni-Shiite balance on which regional stability depends, especially after a nuclear deal with Iran.
Egypt is also playing a growing role in the ideological side of the battle against extremism. Sissi last month proposed a “religious revolution” to save an Islamic world that “is being lost by our own hands.” Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and a leader of Sunni Islam, called last week in Mecca for reform of Muslim religious education to correct “corrupt interpretations” that had allowed extremism to grow.
Why does Sissi shoot himself in the foot by imprisoning journalists and secular activists, damaging Egypt’s reputation and interests? Maybe this self-destructive behavior is the long tail of post-colonial life in a Middle East that is still scarred and deeply resents the West.
The way out of this blind alley isn’t to ignore Egypt but to help it regain power and pride.