Arming Egypt Is a Necessary Evil

So much for democracy.

Photographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama's decision to lift the partial embargo on military aid to Egypt is a harsh nod to reality. Since taking power in a military coup in 2013, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has been every bit the tyrant, showing utter disregard for civil rights. And the Obama administration has long claimed it would lift the embargo only if Egypt showed "credible progress" toward restoring democracy. Yet given the various crises in the Middle East and North Africa, the shutoff of arms to Egypt no longer made sense.

There is no overestimating the importance of the U.S.-Egypt relationship to Middle Eastern affairs. Egypt has traditionally been the No. 2 recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel, and since the Camp David accords in 1978 it has been America's most stalwart Arab ally. Its acknowledgment of Israel has helped ensure the Jewish state's survival and international legitimacy. More recently, the el-Sisi government has been a strong partner in the battle against Islamic State, taken part in the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew the U.S.-friendly government of Yemen, and carried out bombing raids against Islamist militias in Libya.

By restoring aid -- including F-16 jets, Harpoon missiles and kits to assemble as many as 125 Abrams tanks -- the Obama administration is not just rewarding those efforts. It is also letting its other Arab allies know that the U.S. remains on their side, despite negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, their regional nemesis. A potential rapprochement between Tehran and Washington was undoubtedly a major factor in Saudi Arabia's decision to push for a new Arab joint military force that risks further destabilizing the region.

All that said, the decision may understandably give Americans a queasy feeling. It gives full legitimacy to Egypt's military government, accepting that the dream of democracy birthed in the Arab Spring is dead. El-Sisi's regime has locked up thousands of political opponents, obliterated press freedom, cracked down on foreign-financed nongovernmental groups, sentenced hundreds of people to death in mass trials, and canceled parliamentary elections that were to have taken place this month.

To its credit, the White House placed some conditions on the aid to maintain some leverage. Egypt will no longer be able to buy military goods on credit from future years' aid packages. It will also no longer be free to spend the money as it sees fit, but will see it channeled to a few general categories: counterterrorism, protecting its land and sea borders, and security in the Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic State is trying to make inroads.

In the years ahead, the White House and Congress must take advantage of this leverage. Rather than continue to treat aid to Egypt as a given, Washington needs to have a serious annual debate about the Cairo government's progress toward democracy and respect for human rights.

Both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, have been fond of calling the tension between America's security concerns and its ideals a "false choice" -- claiming that when the U.S. sticks to its highest moral values, the national interest is served. In this instance, on the contrary, the choice was all too real. Given the state of the Middle East, lifting the military embargo on Egypt was not only the right call but also the inevitable one. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.