By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Foreign policy is a field of study that is at the center of many different disciplines. Generally speaking, academic texts tend to use academic jargon and are heavy on theory. Their verbiage is used to make the writer to appear more sophisticated and expert at the expense of brevity and concise argumentation.
For that reason, I try to assign in my courses the books that come from publishing companies such as The Washington Institute. This past month, the Institute released an important contribution to Middle Eastern studies with the publication of “The U.S.-Egypt Military Relationship: Complexities, Contradictions, and Challenges.” The book was written by U.S. Army Colonel (Ret.) David M. Witty, who served in the Middle East for over a decade.
The book examines the role of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) and the scope of U.S. aid to the EAF. Witty makes some compelling recommendations regarding the need to adjust our expectations for Egyptian reciprocity and also creates a great textbook for anyone interested in learning more about the Egyptian military.
In his book, Witty makes the important point that the EAF plays a role well beyond what anyone can expect, which will definitely be a surprise to anyone not familiar with the Middle East. He notes: “EAF’s Engineering Authority supervises national projects such as expanding the Suez Canal and building public housing, bridges, tunnels, roads, and a new administrative capital, and it claims to create jobs through its subcontractors. It managed about a quarter of all publicly funded infrastructure projects in 2014.”
The US History with the Egyptian Military
The U.S. investment in the EAF is considerable and spans four decades. It began after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979.
President Carter decided to invest in the Egyptian army, thinking that the U.S. investment would strengthen pro-Western forces in the Arab world. He also sought to distance Egypt from the Soviet Union, who had fashioned the EAF in its image since the early 1960s.
The U.S. has given Egypt more than $50 billion in military grant aid. Until the Arab Spring rebellion, the U.S. was the biggest supplier of military equipment to Egypt. But after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and the election of President Mohamed Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, the situation changed in Egypt.
Shortly after the Egyptian army organized a coup d’état and Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi became the president of Egypt, the U.S. limited aid to Egypt in light of human rights abuses. Cairo then turned to Russia and France, who now supply most of Egypt’s military equipment.
The EAF Works with an Authoritarian Government and Is Unlikely to Change
The book raises several important issues for student of international relations and policy makers. First, there is the dilemma of the U.S. working with an authoritarian government; the book examines the utility of this relationship through the lens of U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Second, it is clear from the book that the Egyptian military has a very limited will to initiate internal reform in exchange for foreign aid. U.S. policy makers need to remember that fact when considering the U.S.-Egypt relationship and what it should look like in the future.
Egypt’s Strategic Importance
It’s essential to remember that Egypt has strategic importance and is an indispensable U.S. partner. The U.S. vision of a Western-style democracy developing in Egypt is not realistic, and the expectation that U.S. foreign aid can incentivize political change is not accurate.
However, the Egyptian military is likely to protect its core interests, including:
- Reinforcing Egypt-Israel peace efforts
- Supporting normal relations between Cairo and Jerusalem
- Guaranteeing Egyptian support of similar relations between Israel and other Arab nations
- Continuing Egyptian assistance in the War on Terror
Witty also supports a move to sell to Egypt a few of the advanced weapon systems it has been requesting for years. In addition, Witty states that the U.S. must come to term with the fact that a certain amount of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric will always be present in Egypt’s public life.
The Reader Should Bear in Mind the Book Is Based on Egyptian News Sources
Witty’s book primarily relies on the Egyptian media. These open sources can serve a scholar like Witty well, but also present a very specific and biased viewpoint.
But research through archives can offer different views. However, it is very difficult to access archival resources in many countries in the Middle East, so the onus is on the reader to assign the correct amount of weight to the information gleaned by Witty from Egyptian news sources.
Witty’s Book Is a Good Overview of the EAF and Egypt’s Relationship with the US
This book is a great text for students of the Middle East, who can gain considerable knowledge from this book. It not only provides a good overview of the Egyptian armed forces but also touches on the reasons behind U.S. military aid policy. In addition, Witty’s book offers a clear critique of the policies behind U.S. foreign aid to Egypt and a fresh look on the need for the U.S. to adjust these policies and its expectations regarding Egypt.