When Policies Collide: Security, Democracy and Re-Arming Egypt


The use of foreign aid as a tool of peace and a weapon of war is as old as foreign aid itself. But aid as a foreign policy tool has its limits. Those limits were tested again in 2013 when the Obama administration froze most U.S. military assistance to Egypt in an attempt to compel changes in democratic governance. In March 2015, after 17 months, the White House lifted the freeze. This whole episode demonstrates what happens when U.S. democracy policy collides headlong with U.S. security policy.


When long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was swept out of office in 2011, he became one of the most consequential casualties of the Arab Spring. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi narrowly won the subsequent presidential election in June 2012, becoming the first true democratically elected head of state in Egypt. Morsi proved more adept at conservative theology than governing, however, and massive demonstrations against his rule quickly ensued. In part as a result, the Egyptian military deposed him in July 2013 and set up an interim government under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who Morsi had elevated above his seniors to serve as Egypt’s defense minister and commander-in-chief of its armed forces in 2012.

Al-Sisi cracked down hard on Morsi and his supporters, banning the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2014, he was elected president with 96% of the vote. Critics claimed widespread human rights violations, citing massive demonstrations where hundreds of demonstrators were killed, the conviction of three Al Jazeera journalists for spreading false news and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, and multiple cases of mass death sentences.

The Freeze

In October 2013, the Obama administration froze hundreds of millions in cash assistance, loan guarantees, Apache helicopters, M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and F-16 fighter jets, and ended joint military exercises. President Obama explained that the freeze was an attempt to encourage the military to seek political reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The quid pro quo for lifting the freeze was movement towards free and fair elections, and progress on “… inclusive, nonviolent sustainable democracy … one of our core interests in Egypt.”

However, Al-Sisi saw the move as “a significant blow to [Egypt’s] long-term security at perhaps the most dangerous moment in contemporary Middle Eastern history.” It sent a stark message to the world that the U.S.–Egypt alliance — the bedrock of the security architecture in the Middle East since the 1970s — was weakening. It also left Egypt feeling less secure as it faced a growing jihadist insurgency in the Sinai, Islamic State attacks on Egyptians in Libya, and insurgent attacks on its home soil that, according to the regime, are acts directed by the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, al-Sisi went elsewhere for arms. Egypt cut a $5.5 billion deal with France for Rafale fighter jets and began negotiations with the United Arab Emirates for Mirage 2000-9s. It also started negotiating a $3.5 billion arms deal with Russia, likely to include S-300 surface-to-air missiles, and planned joint naval drills.

The Thaw

Seventeen months later, the Obama administration reversed itself. The decision was made because of bipartisan political pressure, new urgency over events in Yemen and Iraq, and the fact that the freeze simply didn’t work. The administration recognized that the al-Sisi regime “is in place, it’s not going anywhere, it’s stable, and our previous policy hasn’t gotten us very far … Clearly, this is not about democratization.”

In ending the freeze, the White House did not claim that Egypt had made progress towards democracy, instead certifying that the move was “in U.S. national security interests.” Common security interests cited in the May 2015 certifying Memorandum to Congress included “countering transnational threats … Egyptian adherence to its peace treaty with Israel, counterterrorism and counter-proliferation cooperation, support for U.S. military operations and international peacekeeping, and the security of the Suez Canal.”

Impact of the Policy Reversal

In strengthening Egypt’s military, the policy reversal will help Egypt defend itself from the Islamic State in Libya, the jihadist insurgency in Sinai, the Muslim Brotherhood at home, and Iranian hegemony in the region. It will also, as journalist David Ignatius noted, “help restore the Sunni-Shiite balance on which regional stability depends, especially after a nuclear deal with Iran.” Moreover, it will send a clear message to everyone with a stake in the Middle East that the long-term strategic alliance between the United States and Egypt — ruptured after the United States abandoned President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — is back.

Opposition to the policy change was predictably sharp. Brian Dooley of Human Rights First summed up the position of critics well, arguing that weapons don’t deliver security in the Middle East. Rather, the “region is in turmoil in large part because such regimes have prevented the development of the rule of law, independent labor unions, human rights groups, a free media, and other essential parts of civil society.”

Support for Al-Sisi

Meanwhile, strong internal support has developed for al-Sisi’s authoritarian policies. Many Egyptians view him as “the only option to prevent the country from descending into the sort of chaos seen in neighboring Libya and nearby Syria and Iraq.” After the August 2013 removal of Muslim Brotherhood supporters from sit-ins at Rabia and el-Nahda, an Egyptian poll showed that 67 percent of Egyptians were satisfied with the methods used to disperse the protestors. Late in 2014, 78 percent of Egyptians said that they would vote for al-Sisi again should the presidential election be held the next day, 82 percent said that they were happy with his performance, and 89 percent said that there had been an improvement in the security situation since his election.

When Policies Collide

Democracy is part of America’s DNA, and both Democratic and Republican administrations have aggressively pursued it as a foreign policy objective since 1941. Success, however, has been mixed. Freedom House data indicate that 228 U.S. military interventions from 1973–2005 resulted in only 63 cases where the target country became more democratic. In 69 cases the country became less democratic, and in 96 cases there was no change at all.

While exporting democracy is difficult even in the best of times, using military assistance to advance democratic governance during times of war can be both an exercise in futility and dangerously counterproductive. This is especially true in Middle Eastern states on the front lines of the global jihad. Egypt is a particularly important case in this respect, not least because it is critical to successfully fighting the war. As Osama bin Laden wrote in a letter to Atiyah Abd al Rahman during the Arab Spring:

These are gigantic events that will eventually engulf most of the Muslim world [and] will free the Muslim land from American hegemony … Egypt is the most important country, and the fall of its regime will lead [to] the fall of the rest of the region’s tyrants …

It is therefore not surprising that when U.S. democracy policy towards Egypt ran headlong into U.S. security policy, it was the latter that prevailed.

Re-Building the Alliance

For 17 months, as the Islamic State juggernaut unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa, democratic governance issues were allowed to undermine restoration of the decades-old U.S.–Egyptian strategic alliance. As collateral damage, U.S. policy pushed Egypt into bed with the Russians, creating a new military partnership that continues to strengthen even after the United States reinstated military cooperation.

Some will argue that in retrospect the Arab Spring was terra incognita, and that abandoning our old ally Hosni Mubarak seemed like a good idea at the time given the widespread popular uprising of Egyptians against his rule. But the Egyptian people also rose up en masse two years later to rebuke the Islamist administration of Mohamed Morsi, and to overwhelmingly reinstate by ballot a security-focused military regime.

Just as it was repression under Morsi that drove Egyptians to support military governance, so repression under al-Sisi will no doubt continue driving some Egyptians to support jihad. This results in a paradox wherein repression both ensures national security and acts to undercut it. For now there is strong popular support for the methods used by al-Sisi to ensure national security, demonstrating again — this time at the national level — that when security policy collides with democratic governance policy it is almost always security that prevails.

Over time the United States may be able to help incentivize the Egyptian government to lighten repression and gradually liberalize. For now, though, to Egypt the jihadi threat is existential. It is also becoming existential in the region, and in other parts of the world. For the foreseeable future, the overriding strategic objective must be to defeat the Islamic State, and ultimately to prevail in the global holy war that radical Islam is pursuing against us.

Given the very high stakes involved, it is essential that the United States quickly reconstruct its strategic alliance with Egypt. Al-Sisi brings to the table a deeply rooted antipathy for Muslim extremism, an insiders’ understanding of what will be required to defeat it, and a true commitment to a long-term security partnership with the United States. That is a solid foundation indeed on which to re-build.


Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. In 29 years of work for USAID (1983-2012), he was deployed for 20 years overseas and worked on the ground in 49 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Mr. Goodson served 31 months in Afghanistan (2006-12), including twelve months as Chief of Staff at USAID/Kabul (2006-7) and seventeen months as Director of Development at ISAF HQ under General David Petraeus (2010-11) and General John Allen (2011-12).