Since 2011, the United States has sent more than $6.4 billion in military aid to Egypt, while continuing to mute criticism of the dictatorship’s massive human rights violations. How much does Israel’s influence explain this inexcusable American policy?
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, provided key evidence in his memoir a year ago. He says openly he opposed the pro-democracy Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011, and he even admits he regularly telephoned then-President Hosni Mubarak’s envoy to the U.S., encouraging Egypt to resist the demonstrators. Such a stance seems odd coming from a nation that boasts that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, but Oren explained by quoting a senior Israeli approvingly:
“‘Why won’t Americans face the truth?’ one frustrated Israeli ex-general exclaimed to me. ‘To defend Western freedom, they must preserve Middle Eastern tyranny.’”
Israel does not have to worry about U.S. policy toward Egypt any longer. After General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013, American aid paused briefly, but was soon restored — even though a U.S. government watchdog earlier this year reported that the U.S. assistance was not properly vetted to make sure Egypt was not committing “a gross violation of human rights.”
The el-Sisi regime is not just mildly authoritarian. The Egyptian military massacred 1000 people right away, starting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but then expanded the crackdown to include the more secular and democratic forces that had first launched the Tahrir Square uprising. By some estimates, 40,000 people have been jailed, many of them held in secret prisons, where torture is common. Kangaroo courts have handed down hundreds of death sentences. Three Christian teenagers got 5 years in prison for producing a video, and “a Facebook user who photoshopped Mickey Mouse ears onto a picture of Sisi was convicted of ‘trying to overthrow the regime’ and sentenced to three years in prison.’”
U.S. law is supposed to prohibit aid to governments that seize power in coups, but as Rula Jebreal pointed out in The Nation, Secretary of State John Kerry and others have twisted the facts to whitewash the el-Sisi regime.
Israel is certainly not the only reason the U.S. continues to help the Egyptian dictatorship; Washington is also surely motivated by the (misguided) belief that el-Sisi stands for stability in a volatile region.
But the Israel angle cannot be ignored. American policymakers certainly know that a democratic Egypt would be much less acquiescent to Israel, and much more likely to take action the next time the Israeli army and air force attack Gaza instead of standing idly by and watching another massacre.
Betting on el-Sisi over the long- or even medium-term may be another American blunder. His regime looked popular at first, but the widening repression and the sputtering economy have hurt him. Then, this April, he announced he was giving two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea to neighboring Saudi Arabia, angering nationalists who had supported him until then.
As Sarah Yerkes at Brookings explained: “Making matters worse are reports that Egypt consulted with Israel and the United States prior to the transfer. . . The notion that [el-Sisi] would consult with Israel about something that he kept secret from his own people is the ultimate insult and betrayal to many Egyptians.”