Rethinking American Military Aid to Egypt

By: Stephanie Pillion, Columnist

Photo Credit: MEMO

On November 22, 2017, more than 235 were killed and 107 injured when four truck bombs exploded and militants opened fire on a Sufi mosque in Sinai, Egypt.[i] This attack is the latest example of the Egyptian government’s failed efforts to counter the threat of the Islamic State (IS) within its borders.[ii]

Terrorism is on the rise in Egypt, and the instability in Egypt created by ISIS threatens US national security interests in the region. These include “maintaining U.S. naval access to the Suez Canal, maintaining the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and promoting democracy and economic growth within Egypt, the region’s largest Arab country.”[iii] According to AFRICOM commander Thomas Waldhauser, “Instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to US and allies’ interests on the continent.”[iv]

However, the Egyptian military’s disregard for human rights and civilian life during counterterrorism campaigns has aggravated violent extremism in the country.[v] Despite the fact that the Egyptian government has adopted a mostly unilateral approach to combat ISIS within its borders, Egyptian reliance on US military aid has created an opportunity for the US to influence counterterrorism operations on the ground, and improve the human rights situation in Egypt.

US military success in the Middle East has made it increasingly difficult for the Islamic State to operate. As a result, IS has shifted efforts to Africa in search of new safe havens in which to operate.[vi] The major IS affiliates in Egypt are the Islamic State in Egypt and Ansar Beit al Maqdis, or ISIL Sinai (ISIL-SP).[vii] In 2017, three quarters of all IS violent incidents in Africa occurred in Egypt.[viii]

Egypt has adopted a mostly unilateral approach to defeating IS within its borders. From 2015 to 2016, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) spearheaded a counterterrorism operation against ISIL Sinai called Operation “Right of the Martyr,” which uses air and land military strikes to kill IS-members and dismantle their strongholds in the Sinai peninsula.[ix] In addition, the EAF is working to improve border security, focusing particularly on demolishing smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.[x] Despite these efforts, violent IS-claimed attacks are on the rise in Egypt. From January to September of 2017, IS was involved in 204 violent incidents in Egypt, compared to 72 from the same timeframe in 2016.[xi] Despite increased Egyptian military missions in the Sinai region, they have been unable to defeat less than 1,000 ISIL-Sinai Province fighters.[xii] While Egyptian airstrikes in the region successfully kill ISIL-Sinai leaders, they are rapidly replaced.[xiii]

In part, Egypt’s human rights abuses have enabled the Islamic State to expand. According to testimony from Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at a hearing on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, there are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt who experience inhumane living conditions, torture by prison authorities, and close and lengthy exposure to actual jihadis. Prisoners “openly sing Islamic State chants together at night.”[xiv] The end result, according to Abrams, “is in fact more jihadis.”[xv]

Additionally, the Egyptian military’s disregard for civilian casualties during its counter-IS campaigns has created a backlash against the government and local populations have turned their support towards extremist groups.[xvi] The lack of reliable intelligence on IS safe havens, in combination with the military’s reliance on heavy weaponry and airpower to target the Islamic State, has caused a disproportionate number of non-combatant deaths and the number of civilian casualties is higher than those of IS militants.[xvii] In 2016, there were 1,177 extrajudicial killings in the Sinai province, of which air raids were responsible for 36.6%.[xviii]

Egypt relies heavily on US military aid and receives approximately $1.5 billion per year. US military aid plays an outsize role in the Egyptian military’s budget. According to one estimate, “ ‘U.S. military aid covers as much as 80% of the Defense Ministry’s weapons procurement costs.’ “[xix] Another estimate approximates that “U.S. aid made up a third of Egypt’s broader military budget.”[xx] Though US military aid has supported Egypt in its counter-IS campaign by providing equipment, vehicles and training,[xxi]most of the aid does not go towards essential equipment for counterterrorism campaigns, and instead supports Egypt’s conventional military capabilities. This diversion is evident in both Egypt’s military structure, which maintains a centralized hierarchy with conventional command units, as well as its continued heavy investment into weapons systems impractical for counterterrorist operations.[xxii]

Changing the conditions under which Egypt receives military aid could allow the US to influence Egypt’s approach to countering IS. One such condition could be that the US controls the type of military equipment Egypt can purchase with American aid to ensure that the equipment being bought is best suited for counterterrorism campaigns. The most critical types of equipment for successful counterterrorism campaigns, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, would increase intelligence and accuracy against terrorist targets and limit civilian deaths.[xxiii] Other such conditions on American military aid could persuade or compel the Egyptian military to change their behavior, and increase the efficacy of Egypt’s terrorism campaign.

The US has put conditions on military aid before. In 2012, Congress included “language specifying that Egypt wouldn’t receive any aid until the Secretary of State certified that the country was living up to its end of its 1979 treaty with Israel.”[xxiv] Previous US presidents, including President Donald J. Trump, have withheld military aid to Egypt based on concerns about Egypt’s human rights abuses.[xxv]

The Egyptian government’s counter-IS campaign has proven unsuccessful, and the gross human rights abuses committed by the government and disregard for civilian deaths are causing violent extremism to spread. Although Egypt has adopted a unilateral approach to counterterrorism operations, the US has the ability through military aid to shape the Egyptian military’s counterterrorism campaign, and create conditions to ensure US national security interests are safeguarded, and human rights and non-combatants are protected. The original Egyptian military aid structure, created decades ago, has not been altered; however, the security situation in Egypt has changed drastically since then.[xxvi] A stable Egypt is critical to US national security interests. It is therefore imperative that the US take action to ensure a more successful IS counterterrorism campaign in Egypt and restore stability on the ground.

[i] Walsh, Declan. “Militants Kill More Than 235 in Attack on Sufi Mosque in Egypt.” The New York Times. November 24, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2017.

[ii] US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. 316. Accessed December 2, 2017.

[iii] Plumer, Brad. “The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in aid. Here’s what it does.” The Washington Post. July 09, 2013. Accessed December 02, 2017.

[iv] Miller, Elissa, and Kevin Truitte. “Filling the Vacuum in Libya.” Foreign Affairs. July 18, 2017. Accessed December 02, 2017.

[v] “United States Assistance for Egypt.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed December 02, 2017.

[vi] Jacob Wirtschafter and Karim John Gadiaga. “Africa becomes the new battleground for ISIS and al-Qaeda as they lose ground in Mideast.” USA Today. October 25, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2017.

[vii] The Africa Center for Strategic Studies October 18, 2017. “Al Shabaab Remains Virulent as ISIS Shifts to Egypt – Africa Center for Strategic Studies.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Accessed November 24, 2017.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] “Egypt is failing to stop the insurgency in Sinai.” The Economist. April 06, 2017. Accessed December 04, 2017.

[x] Ibid, 181.

[xi] The Africa Center for Strategic Studies October 18, 2017. “Al Shabaab Remains Virulent as ISIS Shifts to Egypt.”

[xii] US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2016.

[xiii] Ibid, 316.

[xiv] United States Assistance for Egypt, 8: Testimony of Elliott Abrams. Abrams Testimony.pdf.

[xv] United States Assistance for Egypt, 7: Testimony of Elliott Abrams. Abrams Testimony.pdf.

[xvi] “The Heavy Civilian Toll in Sinai.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed December 02, 2017.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Plumer, Brad. “The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in aid.”

[xxi] US Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2016.

[xxii] Stratfor. “Egypt’s Conventional Military Thinking.” Stratfor Worldview. June 12, 2015. Accessed December 02, 2017.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Plumer, Brad. “The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in aid.”

[xxv] Keating, Joshua. “Wait, Does the Trump Administration Care About Human Rights Now?” Slate Magazine. August 23, 2017. Accessed December 04, 2017.

[xxvi] United States Assistance for Egypt, 9: Testimony of Elliott Abrams. Abrams Testimony.pdf

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