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Proposed US Arms Sales to Egypt Could Test New Conventional Arms Policy

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While Egypt prepares for presidential elections on May 26-27, 2014, the Obama administration and the US Congress are debating whether to reinstate military assistance to the country amid continued unrest and violence.

The Obama administration originally froze military assistance to Egypt in October 2013 after Egypt’s military ousted then-President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. The temporary suspension was in response to numerous reports detailing an  increase in violence and use of force by the military-backed government against pro-Morsi protesters and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Morsi was a leader in the Brotherhood.

The interim government’s crackdown in the aftermath of Morsi’s ousting has since resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and the detention of tens of thousands more. And there is overwhelming evidence the interim government is becoming more repressive.  Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, been declared a terrorist organization for the first time in more than half a century, but leaders in secular groups have been imprisoned, media outlets critical of the government have been shut down, and there is general intolerance of any opposition to the state.

Following the temporary suspension in aid, Congress conditioned Egypt’s receipt of renewed US military assistance by making it  contingent upon evidence that Egypt was “taking steps toward a democratic transition,” as well as “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States” and “meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty,” as detailed in the 2014 Appropriations Act.

The October 9 freeze marked the first time the United States suspended aid to Egypt, and created potentially significant complications for the 30-plus year US-Egypt security relationship – a relationship that manifests in roughly $1.3 billion in military assistance annually.

US military assistance to Egypt is rooted in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which helped lay the foundation for US-Egypt relations more broadly.  Following the Treaty’s signing, the US expressed its commitment to expand security relations with both Egypt and Israel, and has since offered additional benefits, such as interest-bearing accounts for Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds and cash flow financing of major arms purchases.

In an April 22, 2014 decision, the Obama administration opted to partially resume aid to Egypt with the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula, where Muslim militants have mobilized.

The delivery was approved after US Secretary of State John Kerry  declared – in the face of much criticism – that Egypt was maintaining its strategic relationship with the United States. But the administration has not been able to certify that the interim government is making significant progress on transitioning to an inclusive democracy.

Further complicating the provision of renewed assistance was the April 29 US Senate blockage of a $650 million military aid package to be financed by FY14 appropriated funds. The Senate cited human rights concerns, such as the recent conviction of 683 Muslim Brotherhood members in a single court proceeding, in its reasoning for blocking the request. The Court’s decision followed a similar proceeding in March 2014 in which 529 members were sentenced to death. For many US lawmakers, these actions call into question the extent to which Egypt’s future government will establish and maintain protections for human rights and the extent to which the Egyptian government can and will be responsive to US requirements for continued military assistance.  

Although some in Congress, such as Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), have been openly critical of current arms sales to Egypt, other officials, such as former US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, have highlighted the arms sales as a way to ensure that US security interests are maintained through advantages such as priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.

Such security arrangements allow for timely responses to problems that may arise in the region. Experts have noted that a total suspension in aid could weaken this relationship and potentially jeopardize US leverage in the region. Of particular concern is the possibility that Egypt will turn to others sources, such as Russia, for military technology and equipment, thereby diminishing the United States’ influence over the Egyptian government.

Understandably, the United States does not want to be accused of complicity in increased repression and coercion against Egyptian civilians. In fact, the United States, in its the new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy released by the Obama administration in January 2014 and spurred by the events of the Arab Spring, seeks to underscore protection of civil liberties and human rights through its arms transfers.

Utilizing the conventional arms framework and allowing for increased scrutiny over arms transfer decisions would serve to prevent US-supplied weapons from contributing to the repression of Egyptian citizens and ensure that such weapons are not used against Egyptian civilians. The policy encourages US arms transfer restraint if there is “likelihood that the recipient would use the arms to commit human rights abuses or serious violations of humanitarian law.”  The policy, in fact, provides the opportunity to highlight the United States’ commitment to safeguarding civil liberties and would demonstrate that human rights concerns are measured in addition to national security interests when considering whether to sell arms to even a close strategic ally.

The US decision whether to fully resume military assistance to Egypt is a test case for the new conventional arms transfer policy. The national security interests in ensuring Egypt’s stability are clear, but the cost to human rights in the midst of continued political conflict is less so. Thus, the United States needs to be measured in its provision of arms, and demand clear and specific human rights protections and increased accountability over the use of US weapons. 

Photo credit: Andrew-M-Whitman via flickr

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