Why Trump's NATO Styled 'Middle East Strategic Alliance' (MESA) is Wildly Dumb

Published July 29th, 2018 - 01:19 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via AFP/FILE)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via AFP/FILE)


  • Trump has released $195 million in military aid to Egypt
  • The grant was originally withheld pending the repeal of draconian laws in Egypt
  • Trump is going all-in on creating an 'Arab NATO' despite partner regimes' human rights records
  • In emboldening top-heavy regimes in the name of security, Trump may doom both security and human rights


By Ty Joplin


The Trump Administration has released $195 million in military aid to Egypt, after previously withholding it, citing human rights concerns.

The military grant to Egypt was scheduled to be delivered in 2017, but a draconian law restricting the operations of non-governmental workers set off alarms in the U.S. state department, which then demanded Egypt repeal the law before it received further military aid.

Egypt has not rescinded the law and appears even more emboldened to carry out rights violations. Despite this, Trump’s team have signalled that Egypt’s strategic partnership is simply too vital to render conditional on human rights.

Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries like Saudi are vital strategic partners in a cold war against Iran that continues to heat up, and will become more important as Trump moves to set up an ‘Arab NATO.’ But in prioritizing the security threat Iran poses to the Middle East, the U.S. is signalling that it will relax its respect for international human rights laws, which in turns could create domestic instability in Egypt, Saudi and Yemen.


The $195 Million Question

Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood sit on trial in July 2018 (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

In 2017, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi imposed a law restricting the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate freely in the country. In response, the U.S. withheld a $195 million military aid grant to Egypt, demanding the law be repealed.

But now, in 2018, Trump’s team seems happy to give Egypt the military aid package. “Recognizing steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific US concerns... the administration has decided to allow Egypt to use the remaining $195 million,” a U.S. state department official told reporters, without citing any specific steps Egypt had taken to assure the U.S. it was guaranteeing rights protections for NGOs.

Sisi’s regime has not rescinded the law and in fact appears even more emboldened to ramp up its authoritarian grip on the country. A few days after the $195 million deal was announced, an Egyptian court sentenced 75 people to death for taking part in anti-government demonstrations in 2013. The group now condemned to die include members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

That their charges relate to taking part in a sit-in violently stopped by the Sisi regime should raise flags in Trump Administration that their $195 million grant will directly empower authoritarian tactics of law and order.

“The decision to release the funds despite a significant deterioration in the rights situation in Egypt is both baffling and troubling,” writes Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Moreover, it severely harms the United States’ own interests as it shows that the U.S. could use human rights as a cover up for other political interests,” he adds.

As baffling as the release of military aid to Egypt may seem, it comes at the same time Trump’s administration is assembling a formal military entity to combat growing Iranian influence in the region.

Dubbed the ‘Arab NATO’ but known more formally as Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), Trump has recruited Egypt, Jordan as well as members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a tentative new partnership.

As one of the U.S.’ biggest recipients of military aid, Egypt is a crucial centerpiece to the partnership. In practical terms, the release of funds despite a worsening human rights situation in Egypt means Trump has concluded that Iran is simply too important a regional threat to start diplomatic fights over human rights records of partner regimes.

Experts are warning that if Trump continues to distribute funds in spite of human rights records of recipinents countries, the U.S. may damage an already-troubled international human rights doctrine.

“It’s a signal: don’t pay attention to anything we say in the future,” argued Michele Dunne, a former State Department official who is director of Carnegie Endowment’s  Middle East Program, referring to the initial warning from the U.S. about human rights in Egypt before releasing the military aid anyway.


The False Promise of an Arab NATO

Egyptian security forces (AFP/FILE)

In this hyper-militarized, win-at-all-costs logic, the U.S. is emboldening top-heavy autocratic regimes that are creating their own security threats. Even if successful in containing Iran, they may simply create instability inside or near their own countries.

This means that the Trump team’s current approach may worsen the security situation in the Middle East while allowing for more widespread human rights violations: a lose-lose.

States that crack down on its citizens’ rights often face backlash that can become violent and destabilizing both politically and economically. For autocratic states that are already in serious economic peril, like Egypt, this is a recipe for disaster.

Facing persistently double-digit inflation rates, an unemployment rate hovering at ten percent and pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep pushing austerity measures, Egypt’s economy is fragile and Sisi has relied on military and police crackdowns on dissidence to keep some semblance of order.

By maintaining order with repressive state power rather than ensuring sustainable domestic peace, Sisi is setting up Egypt for deep and continuous instability. “Human rights violations are among the root causes of every form of insecurity and instability,” argued the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

“Failure to ensure good governance, the equitable rule of law and inclusive social justice and development can trigger conflict, as well as economic, political and social turmoil,” she continued.

This exact trend is beginning to appear in Egypt.

“The country’s current economic crisis deprives the regime of the financial and economic resources needed to sustain a solid social base among public sector employees, and hence hinders the consolidation of authoritarian rule. But at the same time, the regime’s reliance on this group gives it little latitude to pursue economic reform,” argues Amr Adly of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“The regime may survive, but at the high price of continued repression and an inability to alleviate worsening socioeconomic conditions.” Adly also cites the outsized role of military-owned companies in endangering sustainable economic growth.

In other words, the Egyptian regime is trapping itself into economic stagnation and repression with no sign of garnering security or economic prosperity.


A tank rolls through a town in Yemen (AFP/FILE)

The other major partners in the new Arab NATO, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., have also invested much of their power in repression to the loss of both security and human rights.

Saudi and the U.A.E. helped to create a massive power vacuum in neighboring Yemen by utilizing medieval era-siege tactics on its people.

By creating and maintaining an aid blockade, experts and non-governmental workers have told Al Bawaba that Saudi and the U.A.E. are exacerbating famines, starvation, malnourishment and disease epidemics. The U.N. considers the man-made disaster in Yemen the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.

All this because Iran has been funnelling arms and support to the separatist Houthi militia in western Yemen to antagonize Saudi.

In combating that security threat with a doctrine that ignores human rights, the Saudi-led coalition has not proven successful in creating order: the Houthi militias are still entrenched in much of the country, while Iran’s regional clout grows and in the chaos of Yemen, ISIS elements have found a safe haven.

The Arab NATO, which looks to upgrade and unify the military powers of Saudi, the U.A.E and Egypt among others, does not appear to signify a shift in strategic posture but rather a doubling down of the current strategy against Iran. According to the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the new alliance will revolve around the “upgrading of the scattered and divided Arab Coalition into a formal and organized infrastructure similar to NATO.”

To put this all simply, the Trump team is investing wholesale in a security strategy that emboldens autocratic regimes in the name of order. Order, under these regimes, is crumbling.

The U.S. is sacrificing what remains of the an international human rights doctrine in a stalling proxy war effort against Iran and has little to show for it.

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East like Saudi and Egypt then will likely continue to ignore human rights law in preserving their domestic power and can be reassured by the Trump team that most abuses will not jeopardize their strategic partnership with the U.S.

Meanwhile, they are steadily losing ground on the international stage and the Arab NATO may not change that.

By both logics then, security and human rights, the Trump administration, Egypt and Saudi are losing.

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