One on One: Egypt's fragile alliance with the US as it faces terrorist threat

Middle East expert David Schenker discusses Egypt’s challenges in facing the terrorist threat, the responsibility and concerns of the US and cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem.

People stand on a bridge overlooking the river Nile as many Egyptians walk on the streets with Egyptian flags in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
People stand on a bridge overlooking the river Nile as many Egyptians walk on the streets with Egyptian flags in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On December 16, David Schenker – the Aufzien fellow and director of the program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute – testified in front of the US Congress about the security situation in Egypt, delivering a scathing analysis of the Arab world’s most populous state.
“Egypt does not appear to be taking even the most obvious steps necessary to better secure the state,” he said, in a prepared speech marking two years after the ousting of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
His remarks were made mere weeks before terrorism directed at tourists had stepped up in Egypt. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli-Arab tourists in Cairo last week.
Egyptian officials said that the hotel where 32 Israeli-Arab tourists and their tour bus came under attack by youths who threw fire bombs and fired pellets, damaging the hotel’s facade and the bus. Witnesses said Molotov cocktails and live ammunition were also used in the attack. One day later three foreign tourists – two Austrians and a Swede – were stabbed by suspected terrorists at a hotel in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Hurghada.
Schenker, who previously served as the Levant country director in the US Defense Secretary’s Office, sat down for an interview with the Magazine to discuss the Egypt-US relationship, the challenges facing Cairo against the terrorist threat and Egypt-Israel relations.
How do you see the security situation in Egypt, and the extent of its ability to fight terrorism?
Egypt has enormous security challenges.
The Islamic State-led insurgency in the Sinai, which claimed responsibility for downing the Russian airliner in October, has gotten a lot of attention.
The so-called “Province of Sinai” has been persistent and lethal, killing nearly 1,000 Egyptian military, police and border security forces in recent years.
To date, despite official claims from Cairo, it does not appear that Egypt is succeeding in rolling back the terrorists in the peninsula. Collateral damage – unintended civilian casualties and property destruction – are believed to be exceedingly high as well. Meanwhile, although attacks have recently slowed, the insurgency has crossed the Suez Canal, and appears to be taking root along the Nile River. Over the past year, there have been several high-profile terrorist attacks against security installations, assassinations of government officials and the targeting of tourist sites. In some ways, the current situation is starting to resemble Egypt in the 1990s.
For Sinai and the terrorism happening there, do you see the military tactics, already applied there several years ago, able to defeat the insurgency, and how Cairo can benefit from the expertise of Washington in this field?
While it’s difficult to determine exactly what is happening on the ground in the Sinai, to date, the Egyptian military does not appear to be containing or rolling back the insurgency in the Sinai.
There appear to be significant intelligence gaps, and a heavy-handed military approach that seems to ignore modern counterinsurgency or COIN tactics that rely more on pinpoint strikes, highly mobile forces and an economic development component that could encourage more local support for the Egyptian government. If the reports of extensive civilian casualties are true; if reports that the Egyptian government has not appropriately compensated thousands of residents near the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip – whose homes along the border were razed – are true, Egypt could be inadvertently adding to the potential pool of recruits for Islamic State. Washington has learned a lot over the past decade from fighting insurgencies, and is urging the government of Egypt to adopt these hard-learned modern counterinsurgency techniques. Cairo has so far been resistant to adopting a new approach.
What is your interpretation of accusations of secrecy and lack of clarity regarding Egyptian military operations? How do you see the accusations directed toward Washington, that it provides Cairo with weapons that are used to violate human rights?
The absence of transparency of military operations in the Sinai – the banning of journalists, the legislation prohibiting publication of reports that contradict the official Egyptian government position – has further fueled concerns in Washington of high civilian casualties and human rights abuses.
US law regulates how US weapons employed by foreign governments are used. The lack of transparency is a problem, and could become an irritant in the bilateral relationship.
Libya, on the western border of Egypt, is unstable, embroiled in its own civil war. Do you see disagreements between Washington and Cairo on how to deal with Libya, and what type of assistance can the US provide Egypt in this regard?
Cairo has long maintained that the insurgency is being fueled by weapons arriving from Libya, but Egypt has not done enough to secure this long and porous border. Washington has provided some technical and material assistance to do so, but Egypt has not prioritized this matter by devoting its own budgetary resources to the effort. The killing of eight Mexican tourists in the Western Desert in September by Egyptian forces suggests Egypt has ongoing intelligence/ border security problems with Libya that need to be remedied. This would require perhaps reprogramming some of Egypt’s current military funding, being spent on expensive legacy systems. Cairo has been hesitant to do so.
Libya is a failed state, and this will continue to be a problem. On two occasions Egypt (and the United Arab Emirates) bombed targets in Libya, reportedly without first notifying Washington.
The Obama administration is still committed to a diplomatic solution in Libya. Egypt doesn’t have confidence in this approach – and with good reason.
Instead, Cairo appears to want to support Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his Operation Dignity forces in the struggle for Libya. It would be helpful if Washington and Cairo could get on the same page in Libya, so the US could better help Egypt be more proactive in its own defense.
Following the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai – what is your opinion to the extent of the challenge facing Egypt in terms of airport security, and what kinds of expertise and assistance does the country require?
Despite Cairo’s reluctance to concede a bomb may have downed the Russian airliner over Sinai in October, the United States, Egypt and the international community all have an interest in addressing concerns over airport security in Egypt.
As The New York Times reported in November, European officials “have repeatedly complained that X-ray and explosive-detection equipment used to scan baggage is out of date, poorly maintained or poorly operated by inadequately trained staff members.”
This is a problem that Western financial and technical support can and should help mitigate. Egypt appears to now be in the process of contracting a Western company to help, which is a positive and appropriate, if not belated, step.
The international community would have more confidence in Egypt, however, if it focused on solving these problems, rather than denying they exist.
The bombed Russian airliner is eerily reminiscent of Egypt’s continued denial, despite the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, that an Egyptian suicide pilot intentionally downed EgyptAir Flight 990 over the Atlantic in 1999.
How do you see the security and military cooperation between Egypt and Israel at this stage, and how Israel can help Egypt overcome the insurgency located in the Sinai, and in the war on terrorism?
The quiet security cooperation between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai Peninsula is by all accounts excellent. Israel has acceded to dozens of Egyptian requests to temporarily modify the security annex of the Camp David Accords, allowing Egypt to deploy whatever additional assets – troops, tanks and aircraft – Egypt has requested into the Sinai. On at least one occasion, it was reported that Israel attacked terrorists there with Egyptian approval with an armed drone flying over Egyptian airspace. In December, an Egyptian F-16 reportedly entered Gaza air space, and caused no diplomatic problem between the two states.
Finally, do you still see Washington’s annual military assistance to Cairo, which amounts to $1.3 billion, as an effective and influential element in the bilateral relationship, despite the emergence of other financiers in recent years?
The $1.3 billion in US annual military assistance remains an important symbol of Washington’s commitment to Egypt’s security and ongoing support for Egypt’s maintenance of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. As Egypt’s GDP has increased, and other Gulf donors – like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait – have stepped up, the relative import of the US contribution has become smaller. Yet the US remains a key actor in the region, and the continued stability and pro-West orientation of Cairo is a critical component of the US strategic architecture in the Middle East.
At times, Washington has attempted to leverage this assistance to promote more democratic governance in Egypt, but this has not succeeded. At present, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sees itself in a life-and-death struggle with Islamists, and is not likely to make some of the changes Washington would like to see. Washington will continue to press Cairo, quietly, to reform economically and politically, because the US sees reform as enhancing Egypt’s prospects for long-term stability. Nevertheless, as long as Egypt maintains its pro-West orientation and the treaty, the aid is likely to continue.
Egypt has significant challenges. Washington, and its regional allies want to see Egypt succeed. 
The author is an Egyptian writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, working on a master’s degree in political science from the University of Rome.