Egypt Gets Attack Helicopters, U.S. Gets the Status Quo, It Hopes

Tahrir Square during a protest
An Apache helicopter flies over Cairo’s Tahrir Square during a protest to support the Egyptian army on July 26, 2013. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

In the days before the Egyptian army forced President Mohammed Morsi from power in July 2013, the skies over Cairo were abuzz. Black Apache helicopters circled overhead, and crowds of the military's supporters cheered them on. Apaches dropped Egyptian flags on protesters and filmed the protests.

Six week later, the Egyptian army's Apache helicopters were back. As police and military forces prepared to clear a protest encampment of Morsi supporters, helicopters decked out with loud speakers issued orders for dispersal. Hours later, the attack came, and helicopters flew overhead as the police fired tear gas and live rounds. The attack left at least 600 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.

The August 2013 massacre of Morsi supporters and the subsequent and ongoing crackdown on his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissenters shocked the world. The Obama administration responded months later, announcing in October that it would temporarily, and partially, suspend military aid to Egypt—including Apache helicopters.

"The United States wants to see Egypt succeed, and we believe the U.S.-Egypt partnership will be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy," a State Department spokeswoman said at the time.

Six months on, the U.S.'s tune on Egypt is changing again. Government violence against dissenters continues, journalists remain jailed, and the general who orchestrated the coup and subsequent crackdown is expected to win a presidential slated for next month. And the American helicopters are back on their way.

On Tuesday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Egypt's top general, Sedki Sobhy, a replacement for the recently resigned (and probable future president) Abdel Fattah El Sisi, to inform him that the Pentagon will deliver 10 Apache helicopters.

According to the Pentagon, the helicopters are intended to help the Egyptians fight an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, where scores of police and army troops have been killed since the coup. Israel, which shares a border with the peninsula, is eager to see more Egyptian military activity in the area, too, and has put pressure on the Obama administration to resume military aid.

But what does the resumption of military aid to Egypt mean for the U.S.'s position on human rights in the Arab world's most populous country? More confusion and mixed signals.

"I think it falls in the same category as many of the Obama administration's decisions on Egypt: trying to send the message that business as usual won't do, but we still need to work with Egypt on certain security issues," says Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who studies U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Under the three-decade-long dictatorial rule of Hosni Mubarak, Washington and Cairo maintained close relations. With only a few exceptions, during George W. Bush's presidency, human rights and democracy were rarely points of contention. In return for cooperation on regional security and diplomacy, the U.S. provided Egypt with $1.5 billion in aid a year.

That relationship was upended when a popular uprising forced Mubarak from power in 2011. In the chaotic and unpredictable years since, officials in Washington have been on unsure footing regarding policy toward Egypt.

The egregious human rights violations since the coup have elicited much concern and condemnation. Hundreds of people have been killed at protests and more than 16,000 arrested. A criminal court last month sentenced over 500 people to death. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month, Human Rights Watch urged the State Department to demand serious reforms from the Egyptian government, including investigating police abuses and revoking a legal ban on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those recommendations were ignored, but U.S. officials are still keen to say publicly that human rights are a concern when it comes to Egypt. A spokeswoman for Kerry said that in a call with his Egyptian counterpart, the secretary of state "urged Egypt to follow through on its commitment to transition to democracy—including by conducting free, fair and transparent elections."

That's unlikely under the current regime, but in a region roiled with problems for U.S. policymakers—from Iran's nuclear program, to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria, to stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians—a friend in Cairo would be a major asset. U.S. law forbids giving aid to a country that has undergone a coup, and policymakers have refrained from designating Egypt's July 2013 coup as such.

A conciliatory gesture may come from the Egyptian government in exchange for the resumption of military aid. "There has been an effort behind the scenes to talk to Sisi," Katulis says. "If they can help him be magnanimous in his [presidential] victory and take even modest steps to improve the human rights record, to improve the transition to democracy, that's the pragmatic thing to do."

And Sisi's friends in the army surely wouldn't mind some new helicopters in exchange.