Sunday afternoon, police and military forces killed 12 civilians — among them eight Mexican tourists — having a picnic near the Farfara Oasis in the Western Desert. The state claims they were in an unauthorized area and they mistook them for “terrorists,” although the tour operator told the BBC they were on a well-traveled tour route with the requisite police escort.
This is particularly pertinent as Egypt is currently in the midst of a full-scale offensive in the Sinai Peninsula aimed at stamping out the Islamic State-affiliated militant group known as the State of Sinai. The military says it has killed 296 “terrorists” since launching “Operation The Martyr’s Right” on Sept. 7.
However, the region is completely sealed off to foreign media, making it impossible to verify those numbers or to positively identify the deceased as terrorists.
Since 2013, Egypt has used its “war on terror” rhetoric to justify passing draconian laws, sentencing hundreds to death and arresting thousands more — and the United States has nodded right along, releasing 12 F-16s, 20 Harpoon missiles and 125 Abrams tank kits in March 2015.
Pres. Barack Obama agreed to resume requesting $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, which had been suspended since the popularly-backed military takeover in 2013.
In a May 2015 appeal to Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that “the overall trajectory of rights and democracy has been negative,” and that “government forces have committed arbitrary or otherwise unlawful killings during dispersal of demonstrators, of persons in custody and during military operations in the northern Sinai Peninsula.”
He nonetheless argued that it was important to the national security interests of the United States to continue providing aid and training to Egypt’s military.
Among the interests Kerry mentioned are counterterrorism cooperation and support for U.S. peacekeeping troops in the Sinai. The only problem is, the Egyptian military is failing on both fronts and U.S. aid doesn’t seem to be of much help.
“Look at what types of equipment Egypt has been getting,” said Sim Tack, Director of Analytical Support for Stratfor. “The Obama administration allowed the delivery of F-16 aircraft which help Egypt project air power in the region. But otherwise, U.S. military aid to Egypt is fairly limited in its usefulness. There isn’t much of a direct line between the aid and help in the conflict.”
Part of the problem is Egypt is still stuck in “conventional military thinking,” Stratfor wrote in a June 2015 report. Cairo’s army is largely structured and oriented toward defending against a potential invasion from Israel and lacks the intelligence capability, weaponry and flexibility to take on an elusive insurgency.
Although the Obama administration stipulated that this focus would have to change as a condition of reinstating aid, the United States’ current funding system (known as Cash Flow Financing or CFF) allows Egypt to buy U.S. defense equipment on credit and pay defense companies back with future aid disbursements.
This means the next several years’ worth of aid has already been allotted to purchases Egypt made in the past — and can’t be put toward new equipment that might be more useful to its current counterinsurgency campaign, according to Robert Springborg, a visiting professor at King’s College in London and an expert on the Egyptian military.
Proponents of CFF argue that the program makes it possible for friendly nations to purchase high-cost U.S. weapons systems, such as F-16 fighter jets or M-1 Abrams tanks.
This is convenient for Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, who have come to count on multi-million dollar contracts with Egypt every year, but inconvenient for Congress at a time when it wants to move toward sending more border control and counterinsurgency-oriented equipment.
“Defense companies such Lockheed Martin, Boeing or General Dynamics have come to rely on these contracts,” Tack said. “When politics get in the way, Egypt goes and shops elsewhere, like we’ve seen with the French Rafales. Such businesses definitely have an interest in continuing to deliver arms to Egypt.”
The Obama administration has decided to end CFF to Egypt starting in fiscal year 2018. But until then, Congress is locked in to paying off huge U.S. defense companies for equipment Egypt has already ordered — but which might not be particularly useful in defending American interests in Egypt.
It certainly doesn’t seem to have made a difference for four U.S. peacekeeping troops who were injured Sept. 4 in a bomb blast in the Sinai. This attack came just as the Pentagon chose to deploy an additional 75 troops to the peacekeeping base near the Israeli border, along with an infantry platoon, forward surgical teams, vehicles and a slew of supplies.
For weeks, the Obama administration had been weighing the options of withdrawing or reinforcing its 600 peacekeepers amid escalated State of Sinai activity.
According to state reports, the militants killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai in July alone. The group has also taken responsibility for several explosions targeting security interests in Cairo, for sinking an Egyptian Navy ship in the Mediterranean and for beheading a Croatian national — all in the last three months.
The State of Sinai appears to be a growing threat and without access to North Sinai, foreign media can only take Egypt at its word when it says it’s making progress in shutting the insurgency down.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s solution is keep throwing money at Egypt — although it actually has no idea if its military aid is even effective.
Last March, the Government Accountability Office quietly released a report stating that while the State Department has evaluated the effectiveness of its economic assistance to Egypt, it has never evaluated its military aid (which adds up to $76 billion to date, second only to Israel). State had planned to hire a contractor to conduct the evaluation, but no eligible firm ever submitted a bid. Ironically, this was because the firms were concerned about the “uncertain security environment in Egypt,” the report stated.
Even though USAID performed a range of evaluations between 2009 and 2014 and found many of its programs to be showing signs of success, its funding has been cut by 40 percent since 2012. At $16 million, USAID’s budget for its Democracy and Governance programs is a third today of what it was in 2012. And yet Congress disbursed $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing to Egypt in 2014 — and has requested the same for 2015.
“Assistance to Egypt, as to all of the Arab world, has become unbalanced in favor of security assistance at the expense of support for economic growth and what USAID refers to as DRG; Democracy, Rights and Governance,” Springborg said. “The proportion of aid for these three objectives signals U.S. priorities — with DRG coming last.”
This is worrisome not only because it means cutting helpful programs to develop Egypt’s economy and civil society, but also because it signals to Egypt’s leadership that human rights and democracy should come second to security.
“The Sisi government, like others in the region, interprets U.S. emphasis on security and de-emphasis of concern for human rights and democracy as constituting a blank check to govern as they like,” Springborg said, “which in all cases, with the partial exception of Tunisia, is in an authoritarian fashion with little or no regard for the rights of citizens.”