THE BLOG
01/12/2015 10:24 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Rebuilding the U.S.-Egypt Bilateral Relationship

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There is one thing I agree with in Steven A. Cook's recent advice piece on How to Get Egypt's Generals Back on Our Side: the United States must be prepared to spend a lot more than the current $1.3 billion in annual assistance to demonstrate its commitment to Egypt's economic recovery and sustainable peace and security. However, Cook's suggestion that the best way to do this would be to pour further money into military assistance, which has for decades consumed the lion's share of the billions of dollars spent on bilateral assistance to Egypt with little material benefit for most Egyptians, strains credulity.

It would be hard to think of a better example of throwing good money after bad. Instability, economic malaise and political dysfunction in Egypt are harmful to America's interests. The United States would benefit enormously from having a strong, prosperous, well-governed ally in Cairo that could control insurgency in Sinai and be a force for stability in Libya and other regional trouble spots, of which there is no shortage.

Egypt is a large country and if it could be restored to rapid economic growth, which it desperately needs in order to find jobs for its millions of disaffected youth, the positive impact on the region and beyond would be substantial. Unfortunately, the ambition of U.S. policy appears to stretch no further than the somewhat fanciful hope that President Sisi can somehow return Egypt to the stable status quo of the Mubarak era. Is the restoration of a system that wasn't working very well anyway - not for the United States, and not for Egyptians -- really the best that can be hoped for?

Cook's superficially novel argument rests on conventional assumptions: that Egypt's military establishment is the United States' best ally in Egypt and that U.S. policy must be centered on maintaining its trust; that attaching human rights conditions to military assistance does not work; and that U.S. capacity to influence the behavior of the Egyptian authorities is limited. These are all questionable.

The Egyptian military has been in either direct control or had controlling influence over Egypt since the Free Officers' Movement seized power in 1952. Since 1979, Egypt has been a close military ally of the United States. The dominance of the military over politics has held back the emergence of functional civilian political contestation, leaving a vacuum filled by extremists despite the aspiration of millions of Egyptians for human dignity and non-corrupt government. Military control over the economy deters the development of small and medium-sized enterprises and depresses growth. It is perverse that the United States should be so dependent on a force that stands as an obstacle to Egypt's economic and political development.

Attaching human rights conditions to military assistance is insufficient to exercise much leverage over Egypt's human rights practices. However, it is hard to know how effective it might be since the U.S. government has made no concerted effort to condition its long-standing and substantial military assistance on human rights criteria.

Finally, it smacks of complacency to assert that the United States has limited leverage, without having made a serious effort to advance human rights in Egypt, despite the moment of opportunity identified by President Obama in May 2011, when he observed that "strategies of repression won't work anymore," in the Arab region. President Sisi and his military backers are offering precisely such a strategy for governing in Egypt and it has failed in the past.

The new conditions that arose in Egypt in 2011 require a new response from U.S. policy commensurate to the challenges facing Egypt after four years of political turmoil. The U.S. military assistance package is hardly relevant to this task, but other opportunities for the United States to use its influence to promote human rights exist. In March, Egypt is preparing to host a major international conference to support economic development. The United States should play an active role in building a substantial multilateral package of tens of billions of dollars in aid, loans, and investment, and should ensure that the delivery of such aid is made conditional on essential reforms, including ensuring protection for basic rights and freedoms like freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right of independent civil society organizations to operate freely.

Unlike the billions of dollars spent on military assistance, money invested in promoting recovery and reconstruction could eventually repay the U.S treasury many times over through reviving trade and commerce and through promoting stability through good governance instead of returning to the old failed patterns of seeking stability through alliances with authoritarian rulers.