Working Group on Egypt Releases Letter to Obama on Sisi’s Presidency

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June 2, 2014

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

With the election of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al Sisi to the presidency, Egypt has now completed another step on the roadmap put in place after the military coup of July 2013, but according to the American observation mission, “Egypt’s repressive political environment made a genuinely democratic presidential election impossible.” We agree with this assessment, and urge your administration to overhaul its policy toward Egypt in a manner consistent with your recent pledge to press persistently for reforms while maintaining essential security cooperation.

As a first step, we urge that your administration not certify, based on this election, that the Egyptian government has met the congressional condition of taking “steps to support a democratic transition” needed to release suspended military assistance. In the context of unprecedented human rights violations—including tens of thousands imprisoned, mass trials, reports of widespread torture and sexual abuse in detention, and a wholesale exclusion of dissenters from politics—the Egyptian authorities’ adherence to superficial electoral procedures is meaningless. The low turnout, despite the Egyptian government’s pressure on voters to go to the polls, suggests that millions of Egyptians share this view.

We ask you to continue withholding aid not only out of concern for democracy and human rights, but also because Egypt is experiencing a dangerous mix of social polarization, political repression, terrorism, and economic deterioration. Terrorism and radicalization have escalated sharply since a military-backed government took over, concurrent with human rights abuses. Unfortunately, there is no sign yet that President Sisi plans to adopt policies that will take the country off its current path of instability, and there is no evidence that the United States could persuade him to change course even if it restored all suspended aid.

With Egypt in turmoil and a leadership in Cairo unwilling to change direction, the responsible course of action for the United States is to reshape its side of the bilateral relationship to better meet U.S. security interests as well as the needs of the Egyptian people. We understand the United States will rightly continue to work with the Egyptian government on some key issues, particularly counter terrorism, border security, and the peace treaty with Israel. However, the relationship with Egypt should no longer be primarily based on a partnership with a military that has hijacked the country’s nascent democracy. Rather, it will be important for the United States to make clear in its public and private communications that even while it cooperates with the Government of Egypt on certain strategic issues, the United States sees a direct linkage between the rights and freedoms of Egypt’s people and the national security of both countries.

To implement this change, security assistance should be drastically reduced and redesigned to meet specific objectives rather than to provide expensive weapons for which Egypt has no need. Aid that would go directly to the military, outside urgent counterterrorism needs, should not resume until the conditions and certification requirements in the FY14 Appropriations bill have been met. Cash flow financing—the special arrangement for military aid that allows Egypt to make demands on U.S. public resources before they have been approved by our Congress—must come to an end so that U.S. policy is no longer handcuffed by contractual arrangements that narrow policy options.

As security assistance is reduced, the United States should shift the bulk of its support to a smaller number of signature programs focused on the needs of the Egyptian people and that, moreover, can be carried out without excessive bureaucracy or politicization by the Egyptian government. Educational and vocational scholarships for youth, as well as significant new support to small and medium business enterprises, would be particularly appropriate and meaningful.

Egypt faces serious economic problems, and while youth and the private sector are important potential leaders in progressive change, they are disadvantaged in a political and economic environment dominated by the military. In this regard, the United States should work in coordination with its donor partners to put together a package of substantial economic support in the form of loan guarantees, preferential trading agreements, and other incentives that would be provided only based on Egypt’s adherence to international human rights standards and transparent public oversight of the military’s extensive economic interests. The United States should also continue to support Egypt’s embattled civil society organizations and, more broadly, citizens who seek an open political system that fully protects human rights.

This Working Group has written to you regularly since February 2010—during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, President Mohammed Morsi, and now, as Sisi takes office—to recommend U.S. policies to support democratic change and respond to antidemocratic developments in Egypt. Throughout these phases, our view has been the same: that relations with Egypt are valuable for U.S. interests, and that democratization is necessary to meet Egyptians’ aspirations as well as for a stable and successful U.S.-Egyptian partnership.

The situation in Egypt today offers an unenviable challenge to the United States, but it is a crucial relationship for our nation. It is still possible to protect core U.S. interests and values; in the case of Egypt the two are inextricably linked. As the United States responds to the ascension of Sisi to the presidency, we urge you to limit security cooperation to only the most critical issues, restructure U.S. assistance away from the Egyptian military and toward the people, and adopt public and private U.S. positions in favor of real democracy and prosperity for all Egyptians.

Sincerely,

The Working Group on Egypt

Robert Kagan (co-chair)
Brookings Institution*

Michele Dunne (co-chair)
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace*

Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations*

Ellen Bork
Foreign Policy Initiative*

Daniel Calingaert
Freedom House*

Reuel Marc Gerecht
Foundation for Defense of Democracies*

Amy Hawthorne
Atlantic Council*

Neil Hicks
Human Rights First*

Brian Katulis
Center for American Progress*

Peter Mandaville
George Mason University*

Stephen McInerney
Project on Middle East Democracy*

Tamara Cofman Wittes
Brookings Institution*

*This letter reflects the views of the individual signatories; institutional affiliations are listed for the purpose of identification only.