Steven A. Cook testified before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and argued that although the coup d’état that brought General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to power has not resulted in stability, prosperity, or democracy, Egypt is too important for the United States to walk away.
The four most important facts that members of Congress must understand about Egypt today are that
- the Egyptian state is weak and unable to cope with the country’s political and economic problems;
- President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has not consolidated his power;
- political discourse is plagued by exclusionary hyper-nationalism that is polarizing and radicalizing Egyptian society; and
- Sisi has not learned the lessons of the Mubarak period, namely that a reliance on coercion and patronage is an ineffective way to ensure stability, and has in turn created a more authoritarian and more unstable country.
In order to determine an appropriate U.S. policy toward Egypt, U.S. policymakers need to understand what the United States actually wants. Thus far, the main policy themes have focused on democracy, economics, and security:
- It makes little sense to talk about supporting a democratic transition because there is little reason to believe that the United States has the capacity to influence the direction of Egyptian politics. Egyptian officials define their internal struggles as existential, making it difficult to reign in their behavior.
- Some observers have focused on helping the Egyptian economy, inducing private sector-led inclusive economic growth through a range of neoliberal reforms. However, Egypt’s leaders are committed statists and prefer to reinforce the significance of the state as Egypt’s primary economic actor. It is worth noting that, as the Mubarak period demonstrates, economic growth does not always generate stability. In the end, it was rapid economic change that helped destabilize the Mubarak regime.
- Egypt is confronting a significant threat from extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula. Though the United States can help in this fight, the Egyptian armed forces distrust the United States. Senior commanders believe Washington helped enable the Muslim Brotherhood and deeply resents its suspension of military aid in 2013. The Ministry of Defense does not agree with the United States' narrative of events.
The United States and Egypt have been drifting apart for decades. However, Egypt remains an important country for the United States, making it worthwhile for Washington to
- emphasize principles of tolerance, equal application of the law, compromise, and nonviolence to send a clear message that there is no such thing as “back to business as usual” and signal to Egyptians who want to live in more open and democratic societies that the United States will not abandon them;
- support Egypt's fight against extremists by maintaining the assistance package at current levels and encouraging the Egyptians through the promise of additional resources if the Ministry of Defense alters its doctrine and mix of equipment to meet what the Pentagon calls “twenty-first century threats.”