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The United States and Egypt’s undemocratic referendum

Published 16 Jun 2019
Kevin Fine

Between 20-22 April, Egyptians voted in a snap referendum to loosen presidential term limits. Close to 90% of voters approved the proposed changes in a referendum that was invariably marred by allegations of regime interference. The result: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can remain in power until at least 2030. Less than two weeks prior to the referendum, President Donald Trump welcomed President Sisi to Washington DC with open arms. This raises the question: how will the Trump administration respond to Egypt’s slide back into autocracy?

Since 1979, the U.S. has delivered $1.3 billion per annum in military aid to Egypt. Why is this? Egypt is a well-documented violator of human rights with an autocratic government. It does not possess the oil riches of the Gulf States nor an Israel-like “special relationship” with the US. In short, Egypt is a strategically indispensable ally by virtue of its inherent value. Its value to the US was captured by former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates curt proclamation that military aid to Egypt “should be without conditions.” Two aspects in particular dominate the US alliance rationale: power projection and political influence. Understanding the extent of Egypt’s value in these respects helps develop a framework for understanding US-Egypt alliance cohesion.

Projection of Power

Despite ensuring freedom of passage of the Suez Canal under the Convention of Constantinople, Egypt prohibits nuclear-powered vessels from traversing the chokepoint. Only one country is given exemptions: the US. This has helped the US gain command of the sea that first gave it a relative advantage in the final decade of the Cold War and then became a definitive feature of Pax Americana. The first exemption was granted in 1984, when the USS Arkansas crossed the Suez to track a conventionally powered Soviet warship. In the 1990’s, US nuclear-powered carriers transited the Canal during the Gulf War and Taiwan Strait Crisis to check postures from Iraq and China. In the 30 months following the September 11 attacks, US nuclear-powered warships crossed the Suez 40 times; giving the US a distinct operational advantage in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Alignment with Egypt further gives the US command of the Middle Eastern skies. During the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Egypt’s allowance of thousands of overflights of US fighter jets gave the latter a distinct operational advantage. Egypt is a platform through which the US  is able to project its power into critical spaces, and will thus be vital in any future US regional military operations.

Political Influence

When Baathist Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to proceed into Saudi Arabia, the US scrambled to form a multinational coalition. Reluctant to receive US forces on Saudi soil, King Fahd would only do so if Arab troops posted alongside them. Then Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney – recognising Egypt’s political leverage – reached out to President Mubarak for assistance. Cairo hastily gathered a majority of members for an emergency session of the Arab League. Within a week, Morocco and Syria had joined Egypt in mobilising troops. Two fundamental interrelated points can be extracted. Firstly, Egypt provided the diplomatic foundation of the wider Arab participation. Secondly, prior to this it was utterly unthinkable that Arab states would send soldiers to fight alongside US troops on Arab soil against another Arab state. Egypt’s clout provided the US-led intervention with regional political legitimacy. Today, Egypt’s role remains important, with Egypt for example playing a key role in Israel-Gaza negotiations. Further, any multilateral initiative to check Iran will likely require Cairo’s regional political capital.

Will anything change?

The Trump administration’s likely response to Sisi’s consolidation of power can be drawn from the historical record. In 2005, Congress overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to reduce military aid to Egypt by $750 million in favour of increasing development aid. And, in 2013 the Obama administration temporarily froze military assistance following the coup d’état that ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Notably, The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act prohibits Washington from sending military assistance to a country under a military coup, with the Obama administration refusing to call a spade a spade. Yet, the freeze was quickly lifted. Then-National Security Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan explained that this had been done “in the interest of U.S. national security.” Last September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo authorised the release of $1.2 billion in military aid to Egypt, which had been withheld over human rights concerns. This bluff indicates the Trump administration’s stance on Egyptian military assistance does not differ from previous administrations. By first identifying US interests in alliance cohesion with Egypt, and then framing Washington’s foreign policymaking trends with respect to these interests, it is clear that alliance cohesion will experience no fundamental changes with respect to the growing undemocratic nature of the Sisi regime.

Kevin Fine is in his first year of a Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations from Macquarie University and a Bachelor of Arts (honors), majoring in Government & International Relations from the University of Sydney. His interest in international affairs was stoked whilst undertaking a gap year program in Israel. Kevin’s main areas of interests are: U.S. foreign policy, international security, Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Egyptian foreign policy.

Kevin is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.