05 March 2013
Two years ago, on January 25, 2011, Egyptians were poised to cast off the yoke of oppression with optimism that they could bring an end to authoritarian rule in Egypt. The hopes of the Egyptian people–along with many other nations across the globe, including the U.S.–would be that Egypt would finally be able to transition to democratic rule. However, in June of 2012, those hopes eroded into fear as Mohammad Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Since then, trepidations have increased as President Morsi has taken unilateral action to consolidate his power, in the process trumping both political and basic human rights.
On February 26th, the Congressional House Committee on Foreign Affairs met to discuss the growing concerns for Egypt’s current status under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. The foremost issue among the members of the committee involved the revaluating of U.S. aid to the Egyptian government: should the U.S. continue to give aid to the increasingly unpopular Morsi government?
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-F.L.), emphasized the enforcement of the Egypt Accountability and Democracy Promotion Act, which focuses primarily on conditioning the “security and economic assistance to the Government of Egypt in order to advance United States national security interest in Egypt, including encouraging the advancement of political, economic, and religious freedom in Egypt.”
In her opening remarks, Chairman Ros-Lehtinen suggested that with the dramatic cuts predicted to follow the sequestration, the U.S. should not be providing funds and military aid to a government not only unwilling to conform with democratic principles but also disregarding its obligation to the international community, as well as its own people. The committee called upon The Honorable Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chairman of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, to testify on the role of U.S. support in Egypt.
Mr. Abrams argued that in the two years following the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, Egypt has changed profoundly, but the U.S. aid program failed to keep up with the changes. He suggested that our support has merely been on “auto-pilot”, notwithstanding the disturbing occurrences during Morsi’s reign. According to Abrams, on January 28th the U.S. sent four more F-16s to Egypt the implementation of constitutional provisions that threaten the rights of many Egyptians and the overall human rights situation. In his opening remarks, Abrams made clear that “Our aid will do little good unless there is a change toward political compromise in Cairo”, and that the subcommittee must look carefully at “the timing, conditionality, and composition of our aid.”
According to Dr. Swett, who just recently returned from a delegation trip to Cairo, there was an overwhelming sense from non-governmental interlocutors that there is little reason for optimism about the country’s short-term trajectory under President Morsi. Her greatest concern towards the country lies within the newly drafted constitution, in which Morsi took unilateral action by orchestrating a constitution that imposes a strict version of Sharia law. She also confronted the issues of ongoing anti-Semitic comments by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and the issues it would pose to Egypt-Israel relations and regional stability. Dr. Swett pointed to statements by President Morsi, such as the recently unearthed comment made in 2010 in which he urged Egyptians to ”nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred for Jews and Zionists.” In her closing remarks, Dr. Swett advised that the U.S. government should not “certify the disbursement of military assistance to Egypt until the Egyptian transitional government demonstrates that it is using funds appropriated through the Foreign Military Financing Program to implement policies that protect freedom of religion and related human rights in Egypt.”
Dr. Wittes took a more optimistic approach towards the situation in Egypt. Her fundamental argument was that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government feeds off of reciprocity and is surprisingly concerned about the United States perception of their reign. She stated that not only should Congress continue to send aid to Egypt, but encouraged them to increase the amount of financial aid being transferred. She argued that, “because they do still care what we think, the leverage we have is probably best deployed as incentives, not as threats or arm-twisting. Our recognition, our investment, our good opinion, and our expressions of partnership all matter, along with our aid dollars.”
Moving forward, all three witnesses agreed that there is much concern for the current status in Egypt. Whether Congress addresses this through placing conditions on aid given to the nation, or by increasing the aid that is already being transferred, one thing was made clear by the trio–the course of Egypt’s transition matters deeply to the United States, and it still has significant power to affect that trajectory.