When Interests Clash

The events of recent days in Egypt remind us that U.S. foreign policy is inherently complicated, that our global priorities often clash and that, in some cases, the wisest choice is far from the most morally satisfying.

In Egypt, the United States faces a clash between two key priorities – our long-term support for freedom and democracy as the best path toward a safer and more prosperous world and our short-term need to confront the world’s most dangerous terrorists and help others who are doing so.

In this case, Washington should support Cairo’s efforts against the terrorists within and on its borders through greater military aid and cooperation. As its ties to Cairo improve, Washington may be better positioned to nudge Egypt’s government toward more freedom and democracy down the road.

While Americans were enjoying their Thanksgiving holiday, an Egyptian court dropped murder charges against former President Hosni Mubarak and a half-dozen former top officials for their actions during the early 2011 Arab Spring protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that forced Mubarak from office. It also acquitted Mubarak, his two sons and a business associate of corruption.

Egypt’s current president, former Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, then announced that he’d abide by the court’s decision, urged Egyptians to “look to the future” and sent his police to clear demonstrators from Tahrir Square, leaving two dead and more than a dozen injured.

That seems like a step backward from nearly four years ago, when Egypt seemed headed for democratic rule. Mohammed Morsi, a product of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012, but after alienating Egyptians with his strong-arm tactics, he was overthrown in a popular military coup a year later and replaced by el-Sissi, the army chief.

Though el-Sissi was elected president this year against weak opposition, he’s no Jeffersonian Democrat. Facing an Islamic insurgency that seeks to topple his government, establish a caliphate and impose Sharia law, he’s wielding dictatorial power to target the radicals and stifle dissent more broadly.

El-Sissi has arrested tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, sentenced hundreds to death and directed his security services to crack down harshly on unauthorized public gatherings. Along with the radicals, he’s targeting leaders of the Arab Spring protests as well as reporters.

At first blush, the proper U.S. reaction might seem an easy call. With its support for basic human rights serving as an integral part of its foreign policy since at least the end of World War II, Washington naturally would condemn the crackdown and punish the government by withholding aid.

El-Sissi, however, retains broad support from a populace that fears Egypt could fall victim to the chaos of nearby countries and that apparently finds comfort in the return of a pharaoh-like strongman. More to the point, Egypt is fighting the same radicals that are eyeing the United States for future attacks.

Specifically, Egypt’s main Islamic insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis recently declared its allegiance to the Islamic State group – the very group that the United States is battling in Iraq and Syria. The Egyptian insurgent group has launched attacks in Cairo, across the vast Sinai Desert and on the Mediterranean Sea, slaughtering police, soldiers and navy personnel with, for instance, Islamic State-like beheadings.

Other militant Islamic groups, such as Ajnad Misr, operate throughout the Sinai, working with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, launching dozens of attacks both there and in Cairo and targeting the Arab Gas Pipeline that exports Egyptian natural gas to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The more that radicals control the Sinai, the better placed they would be to launch more terrorist attacks across the border with Israel.

Egypt faces similar challenges on its western border with Libya, which fell into post-Arab Spring chaos when no strong central government emerged after rebels toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libyan militants, for instance, recently killed nearly two dozen Egyptian border guards.

Under el-Sissi, Cairo has worked closely with America’s close ally in Israel – particularly during its recent war in Gaza – in a joint bid to control Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. In fact, Jerusalem credits Cairo with destroying numerous tunnels that Hamas built to smuggle weapons from Egypt to Gaza.

Egypt awaits nearly $600 million of its $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid and overdue U.S. military hardware. By providing the aid, Washington could help itself on the security front and, through closer ties and closer collaboration, position itself to gradually push Cairo toward greater human rights in the future.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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