Egypt’s most important human rights nongovernmental organization recently received notification from the Egyptian authorities that it would be shut down. For over 20 years, the Nadeem Center has documented state violence and torture and helped its victims – if they remain alive.
Some do not, such as the Italian Ph.D. student in Egypt who was recently found half naked by a roadside, his body bearing signs of a slow death by particular torture techniques known to be perpetrated by state security forces.
Yet the Obama administration, in its recent budget recommendations to Congress, proposed doing away with a law that withholds some US military aid due to human rights abuses. Not only that, the administration requested removing the prohibition on the transfer of tear gas and other crowd-control weapons that had been in place since the Middle East uprisings five years ago.
Back then, everything seemed really different. In February 2011, millions of Egyptians celebrated in Tahrir Square. After 18 days of mass demonstrations, they achieved what had seemed impossible: the overthrow of an authoritarian ruler who had for decades been backed by the world’s superpower, the United States.
Standing at the square along with millions of other Egyptians that night, it seemed like another future was possible. But five years later, with a counterrevolution in full force and many of the leading activists from 2011 killed, in jail or in exile, and ISIS threatening the whole region, it is harder to keep that better future in sight.
While the flurry of analyses that came out last month to mark the anniversary of the 18 days highlighted important factors for why the revolution was not realized, one factor that has not been noted so openly is the role of the United States.
At Tahrir Square five years ago, the chant “bread, freedom and social justice” rang out across those 18 days. But the United States is centrally responsible for creating and sustaining the vast military machine that puts an economic and security stranglehold on Egyptian society, preventing Egyptians from achieving those three things.
From 1948 to 2015, the United States gave $76 billion in bilateral aid to Egypt, the overwhelming majority earmarked for the military. Since 1987, this has equaled $1.3 billion per year.
This is harmful as Egypt’s military business ventures represent, according to some estimates, up to 40 percent of the country’s economy, and they are not subject to oversight and are often classified.
How can Egyptians be free when the military, police and state security forces can use their massive arsenals to attack and kill them when they express dissent? When the government can use these forces to suppress freedom of expression, forcibly disappear hundreds or arrest upwards of 40,000 critics without due cause or standard legal protections?
The United States justifies this massive amount of aid by arguing that having a strong Egyptian military creates regional stability. But 23 percent of Egypt’s youth suffer unemployment and 50 percent of them are poor.
Given ISIS’s promise to provide jobs, and its opposition to the United States, it remains to be seen whether choking a population with US-made tear gas and US-government-supported economic injustice creates stability. As we know from 9/11, and as the subway chanters knew, the 70-year US alliance with Saudi Arabia (the top purchaser of US arms) certainly didn’t make Americans – or most others in the region – any safer.
Just as the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia despite its grotesque human rights violations, it also bolsters the Egyptian government by arming it. Aside from a temporary funding halt in 2013 after the military deposed the democratically elected president at the time, Mohamed Morsi, the US government continues to build ties with the Egyptian government and its security apparatus even as, for example, Egypt has become second only to China in its imprisonment of journalists.
All this is not to say that the United States is solely responsible for the obstacles Egyptians face today, or that other countries (especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) do not also play a role with major support of Egypt’s military. But the United States has certainly placed some pretty large boulders in the path by enriching and empowering – for decades – an institution that oppresses the people it is meant to serve.
Americans should know that their tax dollars are supporting counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt as well as human rights abuses. One immediate step we must take to remedy this is to withhold our military aid to Egypt until it ends its human rights abuses. Now.
If caring about Egyptians’ well-being isn’t enough to demand change, then perhaps Americans should consider the potential blowback of this foreign policy, perhaps even on domestic soil.