Dear Mr. President,
The United States has an important relationship with a foreign country that permits its territory to be used for the purpose of smuggling lethal and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to groups designated as terrorists by our State Department.
This same country has repeatedly promised your predecessors that it will introduce multi-party democracy, but instead has cracked down on democrats and reformers. Meanwhile, it grants free rein to Islamist groups in tightly controlled and manipulated elections.
This same country has played a leading role in blocking American efforts to end the genocide being perpetrated in the embattled Darfur region in the Sudan.
This government has permitted its state-controlled media to disseminate anti-Semitic tracts and propaganda.
It has also permitted perennial discrimination against Christians, its largest minority population.
Yet, we continue to regard this country as an ally and grant it the second highest amount of American foreign aid (after Israel), totaling presently $2.1 billion annually, including a $1.3 billion subvention in military assistance.
Mr. President, the country in question is Egypt.
Smuggling from Egypt to Gaza
In August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, a territory that borders Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Since that time, security control of the Gaza/Egypt border has steadily deteriorated. Weapons, explosives, and extremists have traveled back and forth in subterranean tunnels that begin in Sinai and empty out in southern Gaza. The results have been disastrous. The Hamas terrorist organization, which took control of Gaza by force in June 2007, has added innumerable sophisticated weapons to its arsenal in preparation for a conflict with Israel.
Concerned over ceding a vital aspect of its security, Israel recently permitted Egypt for the first time since its 1979 peace treaty to station an additional 750 troops along the border to enable it to deal with the infiltration of men and materiel into Gaza. Yet the smuggling only increased.
In January 2006, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s Internal Security Services, informed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that, “The amount of weapons and explosives smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Egypt has grown drastically, by more than 300 percent.”
In 2006 alone, Israel captured over 100 Palestinian terrorists who tried to infiltrate Israel from Sinai, despite the stationing of the extra Egyptian forces. The former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, said in January 2007, “Egypt is not acting like Jordan, which liquidates the smuggling networks and prevents quantities of arms from reaching the border.”
Egypt not only refuses to secure the border area, but it rejected a proposal for an international force to do the job. As a result, Hamas continues to build a deadly arsenal, leading analysts to believe that the next Hamas-Israeli battle will be a bloody one.
In Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections, President Husni Mubarak returned to power with an overwhelming majority because his competitors were permitted neither the legal right nor resources (financing, media access, etc.) to campaign against him. Both independent international observers and local election monitors were banned. It is estimated that as many as 15 million voters were automatically disenfranchised by a law requiring their registration two months before the election was even called. Moreover, in the lead-up to the election, crackdowns on opposition candidates and parties were routine.
Meanwhile, in parliamentary elections, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to contest and even win a limited number of seats. While this may appear contradictory, it is now clear that Mubarak seeks to persuade the West that a dangerous Islamist opposition waits in the wings. Indeed, by permitting the limited empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, he seeks to deter the West from applying pressure on Cairo for reform.
The repression in Egypt is blatant. In 2006, hundreds of Egyptians were arrested for demonstrating in favor of judges who had denounced the rigging of recent parliamentary elections. Mubarak subsequently cancelled local elections scheduled for later that year. Elections in 2007 for the upper house, the Shura Council, were marred by episodes of voter intimidation. Also that year, Alaa Seif al-Islam, a prominent blogger, was jailed for six weeks on charges of insulting the president, while another blogger, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, was sentenced to four years in prison for crimes of expression, including “spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation,” “incitement to hate Islam,” and “defaming the president.” Meanwhile, Mubarak’s presidential challenger in 2005, Ayman Nour, previously released from prison thanks to American pressure, was re-jailed for allegedly falsifying petitions to run in the presidential elections.
Blocking Justice in Darfur
Since reports of genocide emerged from Sudan’s Darfur region, the Egyptian government has been one of Sudan’s most reliable neighbors working assiduously to forestall international diplomatic and military intervention to stop the slaughter orchestrated by Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir.
In 2005, a proposed handover to the United Nations of African Union (AU) peacekeeping functions was roundly opposed by Sudan. Egypt prominently backed this position, raising the specter of an Arab/African split within the AU. This led the AU to reconsider handing over authority. Egypt thus frustrated efforts that would have led to NATO countries contributing substantial forces and infrastructure unavailable to the AU peacekeepers to stop the killing.
In 2006, Egypt played a leading role in blocking the adoption of an American-supported United Nations Security Council initiative to double the size of the African peacekeeping forces and enlarging the role of NATO. In 2007, it also opposed stronger American sanctions against the Sudanese government, as well as U.S. efforts to internationalize those sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.
Promoting Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism
Since 1979, Washington has financially underwritten the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which it hoped would serve as a model for the region. It is now only a cold peace. The Mubarak government has nurtured and inflamed a hatred of Israel and the Jewish people among the Egyptian public.
In 1997, Cairo permitted publication of a popular commentary on the Quran that promotes hatred of Christians and Jews and exhorts Muslims, adult and child alike, to take up arms and fight them. Egyptian journalist Asma Nassar opined that, “The expected consequence of this [book] is that, in the future, thousands of young children will be willing to blow themselves up [in terrorist operations] against [non-Muslims].”
Vicious anti-Semitic content can be found across the government-controlled Egyptian media. For example, Egyptian television produced in 2002-2003 a 40-part series, “Rider Without a Horse,” dramatizing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The program depicts Jews murdering a gentile child to use his blood in the making of Passover matzah. The Mubarak government refused to ban the series.
Egyptian society’s hostility to Israel is reflected in the success of a popular song entitled, “I Hate Israel,” as well as numerous anti-Semitic political cartoons. A 2006 poll found that 92 percent of Egyptians regard Israel as an enemy nation, as opposed to a mere 2 percent who regard it as a friend. Similarly, more than 50 percent of Egyptians regard the United States as an enemy.
Repression of Christians
The Coptic Christians, Egypt’s largest minority (about 11 million people), have been the victims of more than 40 organized attacks during the Mubarak era, including large-scale attacks in Alexandria in 2005.
In April 2006, during Easter week in Alexandria, knife-wielding Muslims attacked worshippers at several churches. Attacks on Coptic Christians in the town of Zeitoun also occurred this year. In all cases, the Egyptian authorities failed to provide Christians with adequate protection.
In Egypt, restrictive laws apply to Christians in areas such as housing, external appearance, performance of their religious rituals, and even upkeep of their churches. As a result, many of them have lapsed into disrepair.
Toward a New Egypt Policy
Mr. President, there is a real need for crafting a policy toward Egypt that achieves and furthers America’s goals and interests. Thankfully, the prospects for eliciting favorable change in Egypt are unusually strong.
For example, in 2003, after the Bush Administration applied diplomatic pressure and withheld $130 million in supplemental aid to Cairo, President Mubarak released leading Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a visit to Cairo to protest the regime’s arrest of another such activist, Ayman Nour. This decision is believed to have played a part in securing Nour’s release.
Sustained pressure of this type could still achieve further improvements. Economic and military aid to Cairo must be withheld and remain conditional on specific changes in Egyptian conduct:
1. Your administration should make the continuation of military aid to Egypt conditional on sustained Egyptian military and intelligence action to put an end to the arming of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terror groups based in the Gaza Strip. Failure to do so permits these groups to wage a terror war that stymies Palestinian-Israeli peace. Intermittent Egyptian actions or gestures to placate Washington are unacceptable.
2. Your administration should also make the continuation of future military aid to Cairo contingent upon Egypt terminating its spoiling role over Darfur.
3. Washington should make the problem of incitement to hatred of Jews, the State of Israel, and the United States in Egypt’s state-controlled media a permanent agenda item in bilateral relations until positive change is achieved. Bipartisan legislation should be introduced in Congress to examine and report periodically on Egyptian compliance. Failure to comply should result in the withholding of future aid.
4. Continuation of aid to Cairo should also be conditional on verifiable improvements in the freedoms and protection of Egyptian Copts, democrats, and human rights activists. Your administration might consider compiling a list of these individuals, and then fight vigorously for their freedom, just as the U.S. championed such activists in the Soviet Union.
Washington should also insist on verifiable information demonstrating that attacks and persecution against Copts have been properly investigated and that their rights are upheld under law.
5. Finally, your administration should encourage a process of gradual democratization in Egypt that places less emphasis on the promotion of democratic processes, such as elections, constitutions, or referenda. Rather, more emphasis should be placed on democratic purposes, such as civil society, rule of law, and political and religious pluralism.
To promote democratic processes in societies with no democratic conditions is to ensure the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, the danger of which Cairo continually warns. Perhaps a more realistic near-term goal is to pressure Cairo into legalizing secular political groupings and permitting a freer, more liberal press.
In taking these steps, Mr. President, Egypt may yet play an important role in bringing about a more progressive and secure Middle East.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University and director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy. He is the author of H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, 2004).