POMED Notes: House Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa, “Demonstrations in Tahrir Square: Two Years Later, What has Changed?”
On Tuesday, February 26, the United States House Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa held a hearing entitled “Demonstrations in Tahrir Square: Two Years Later, What has Changed?” to discuss US policy toward Egypt in light of the country’s recent political turmoil. The subcommittee heard testimony from Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the US Committee on International Religious Freedom; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
For full notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
The hearing began with opening statements from Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who discussed the fears raised by the recent developments on Egypt’s political scene. She referred to President Morsi’s constitutional declaration of November 2012, granting himself sweeping powers immune from judicial oversight; the hurried passing of a constitution the following month, which left out “crucial protections” for women and religious minorities; and the uptick in police brutality towards protestors. She criticized the fact that the US has uncritically maintained its military and economic assistance throughout this period of repression and undemocratic behavior, and proposed that the US should reexamine its aid package to Egypt and seek to use it as leverage to push for true democratic reform.
Ranking member Ted Deutch (D-FL) followed the chairwoman’s remarks with a discussion of the need to consider how the shift to an Islamist government in Egypt should be reflected in US policy. He warned that the US could not simply cut its $1.3 billion in assistance to Egypt, as this would have “serious ramifications,” including weakening the Egyptian military—which serves as a key counterweight to President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood—and strengthening Iran’s hand in the region. He thus proposed that the US should continue to provide assistance to Egypt, but only insofar as we can “be certain that our aid is used in the smartest, most effective way possible.”
Following brief statements by other subcommittee members, the Honorable Elliott Abrams offered his views on a number of troubling developments in Egypt, pointing out that, in the one year since Morsi came to power, more charges have been filed for the crime of insulting the president than had previously been filed since 1892. He thus advised that the US needs to take a “bottom-to-top” look at its assistance to Egypt with an eye to timing, conditionality, and compromise, warning that it is critical to change the pattern of ignoring the country’s domestic policies provided that its foreign policies are acceptable. If this pattern continues, the US risks appearing indifferent to Egypt’s human rights struggle. The full text of Mr. Abrams’ written testimony can be found here.
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett went on to discuss the state of minority rights in Egypt in view of her recent visit to the country with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, cautioning that there appears “little reason for optimism about the country’s short-term trajectory under Morsi.” She advised that there has been “increasing radicalization” in Egypt that has negatively impacted women and religious minorities, and that acts of violence have been committed with impunity against the country’s Coptic Christian minority. The situation, she explained, is “complicated and concerning,” and that many in Egypt doubt whether the government has any real desire to protect the civil rights of its minorities. The full text of Dr. Swett’s written testimony can be found here.
Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes then explained that US policy toward post-revolutionary Egypt has rested on two pillars. First, the US government has focused heavily on maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and ensuring the security of the Egyptian border with Gaza. Second, it has sought to provide economic assistance that would help stabilize the economy. These two pillars, however, neglect a critical third dimension—Egyptian politics—that the US must seek to influence if Egypt is to successfully complete its transition. She advised that the US has the capacity to influence Egyptian politics, although it will be more successful in doing so “with incentives rather than arm-twisting,” noting that Egyptian leaders still care how the US government perceives them. She further argued that the US must engage more broadly with political actors in Egypt—not just the ruling party—tapping into shared interests such as avoiding extremist violence. She added that, while the Muslim Brotherhood has its flaws, the opposition, too, has important lessons to learn about compromise. The full text of Dr. Wittes’ written testimony can be found here.
During the question and answer session, Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen asked what the coming year might hold for the Egypt-Israel relationship. Mr. Abrams proposed that Morsi has been, and will continue to be, careful in his relations with Israel—as demonstrated by Cairo’s recent decision to flood the smuggling tunnels running from the Sinai to Gaza—as he realizes that any trouble with Israel would be devastating for Egypt on multiple levels. Dr. Swett, however, warned that there is some underlying danger that, if Egypt’s government continues to disappoint on the economy, on human and civil rights, and so forth, the Brotherhood may resort to antagonizing Israel as a means of galvanizing public support.
In response to questions about military and economic assistance, Dr. Wittes expressed her concern over the fact that the US has cut its democracy assistance to Egypt at a time where it is critically important. She also spoke on the need for greater military to military engagement involving training and other programs that would push Egypt’s security forces toward respect for human rights and the rule of law. Mr. Abrams echoed the sentiment that the composition of US military aid should be revisited, and ideally steered away from “very big ticket items” like F-16s that aren’t going to help the Egyptian government keep order in the Sinai or other parts of Egypt.
In response to a question about the possibility of pushing the Muslim Brotherhood toward truly democratic practices, both Dr. Wittes and Mr. Abrams emphasized the importance of helping to produce genuine political competition by working with opposition parties and ensuring the legitimacy of future elections. Given such competition, the Brotherhood may be forced to make important compromises on key issues such as minority and women’s rights.