Egyptian leaders have come to see the annual $1.3 billion American military aid package as an entitlement they are due in perpetuity for having signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. The United States has done little to disabuse them of that notion. It’s time it does. Failing to make significant cuts to the program later this year, when the Obama administration will confront tough choices regarding Egypt’s future, would be indefensible. Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took control in Egypt though a military coup in July 2013, the country has returned to its authoritarian moorings by jailing political opponents, silencing critics and vilifying peaceful Islamists.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the leading political movement in the wake of Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising, are languishing in prison, unfairly branded as terrorists. That has left a large generation of Brotherhood supporters rudderless, raising the possibility that some will be drawn to militancy. Just when the United States is battling Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria, seeking to isolate the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, Egypt’s crushing authoritarianism could well persuade a significant number of its citizens that violence is the only tool they have for fighting back.
Egypt today is in many ways more repressive than it was during the darkest periods of the reign of deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Sisi’s government has cracked down on demonstrations, tightened control of state media and prosecuted journalists. A new, vaguely worded law will soon stiffen penalties for individuals who receive foreign funding, making it a crime punishable by life in prison. The measure, ostensibly intended to fight terrorism, is similar to policies the state has used to suppress the work of pro-democracy organizations.
In Sinai, as its fight against militants has moved into populated areas, the Egyptian army has reportedly used American-made tanks to shell civilian areas. When Human Rights Watch tried to release a report in Egypt about last year’s brutal crackdown on a Cairo demonstration camp, during which more than 900 protesters were killed, the group’s representatives were barred from entering the country.
Mr. Sisi, who came to power in a rigged election, seems to think the rest of the world has not noticed. Addressing the General Assembly last week, he claimed, astonishingly, that he was building a new Egypt that “respects rights and freedoms” and “ensures the coexistence of all citizens without exclusion or discrimination.”
American officials have been measured in their criticism, calculating that they are better off with Egypt as an ally, however despotic. Historically, they have valued expedited passage through the Suez Canal for American Navy ships and unfettered access to the country’s airspace.
In the coming months, however, the administration will have two opportunities to correct its course and signal that it can no longer condone brutality.
First, Washington must stop allowing Egypt to place military hardware orders under a preferential system called cash flow finance. Available only to Israel and Egypt, the mechanism works much like a credit card, permitting the countries to place orders under the assumption that Congress will eventually appropriate enough funds to cover them. It will take years to wean Egypt off cash flow finance, since orders can take years to process, but doing so now will help untangle contractual and legislative knots in the future.
Second, Secretary of State John Kerry has to certify to Congress that Egypt is on a path to democracy as a condition for delivering several items of military aid that are in the pipeline. Congress insisted on such certification when it appropriated Egypt’s military aid package last year. Failing to do so by the end of the year would halt the delivery of roughly $650 million worth of American tanks and fighter planes. The only reasonable answer from Mr. Kerry is no.
Egypt values American military hardware, and continued cooperation is in the interest of both countries. The onus is on Cairo to earn it.