From her perch as chairwoman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chaired a hearing on “Egypt: Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Policy” on Wednesday. Her opening statement is below:
This is the third hearing of our subcommittee that we’ve had on Egypt in a little over a year, demonstrating the importance of, and our subcommittee’s commitment to, Egypt’s role in a volatile region, as well as the concerns our members may have on our current U.S. policy toward our ally.
The political, economic, and security challenges that Egypt is facing right now they are numerous, they are interdependent. It is extremely difficult, for example, for President Sisi to make necessary structural reforms to Egypt’s economy without potentially undermining the fragile political support he is leaning on to bring much needed stability to the country. Conversely, if these economic reforms are not made soon, we may see a return of the unrest that we saw on Egyptian streets not too long ago. And it is in this context that Egypt is facing growing security threats from an expanding ISIS and its Sinai Province affiliate, from al-Qaeda linked groups, from militias, from extremists in Libya, and from particularly violent factions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sinai Province has formed terrorist cells that are targeting both Egyptian and Israeli military personnel and civilians, and has already killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers, is continuing to target the peacekeeping operations or the MFO, Multinational Force of Observers in the Sinai, prompting the Pentagon to reposition U.S. troops and reconsider its presence there. There is more and more evidence that ISIS is attempting to link its operations in the Sinai in eastern Egypt to its presence in the Western Desert that sits alongs the extremely porous border with Libya. And there are growing reports of increased activity in southern Egypt and the Nile Valley, including in greater Cairo which has seen IEDs and shootings like the one that claimed the lives of eight Egyptian policemen last month.
While Egypt has been trying to keep up with these threats, it is increasingly clear that Egypt must also adopt a counter-insurgency approach that will allow it to get a handle on the problem before it gets worse. While the security situation remains a high priority, I am extremely concerned by the government’s attitude toward human rights, its crackdowns on civil society, its squashing of dissent.
I was disappointed to see that the government froze the assets of yet another NGO just yesterday as part of an ongoing case which began in 2011 and targeted U.S. NGOs like IRI, who’s President joins us here today. 43 NGO workers in this case were unjustly convicted in 2013 - as we all remember - and I continue to call on President Sisi to do everything in his power – including working with the Egyptian parliament – to work with the judicial system and find a way to pardon these workers as soon as possible. The government needs to find a way to open up civil society and allow Egyptians to participate and thrive in public life or it risks exacerbating the very problems it is trying to avoid.
In Egypt, the economy is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Infusions of cash from the Gulf states, especially from Saudi Arabia, as well as loans from the World Bank, the IMF, and others have managed to keep the economy afloat for the time being. But these investments aren’t likely to stimulate growth in the long-term and the government has to make difficult, structural reforms like reducing the bloated public payroll and passing the long-promised Value Added Tax. Unemployment, especially among youth, remains high, and around 60% of the population is poor and living on subsidies.
One bright spot on the economic horizon has been the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund, which Congress authorized in 2012 and has been successfully investing in Egypt’s private sector to create jobs and support sustainable development. The Enterprise Fund, as with all the aid that Congress has appropriated, is an example of how much the United States wants to help Egypt as both an ally and a strong supporter of peace in that troubled region.
But the Egyptian government also needs to help us help them, and that includes allowing our Economic Support Funds or ESF moneys to be programmed. As of March 31st, there is a backlog of approximately 900 million dollars in ESF for Egypt because the government has held up permits for our implementing partners on everything from democracy and governance to education and healthcare. That is why I was happy to sign a letter this month alongside Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel, and the Co-chairs of the Tunisia Caucus, asking the Secretary of State to reprogram up to 20 million dollars of this money for Tunisia.
This is not meant to be a slight against Egypt, but it makes little sense to continue letting these funds sit in the pipeline when they can be spent somewhere else – someplace like Tunisia which is in desperate need of the funds and is willing to let us help. Egypt is an important strategic ally that is struggling on a number of fronts, and as we will discuss the challenges and opportunities for U.S. policy here today, I continue to believe that the best way to help is through encouragement and assistance as a friend.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was first elected to Congress in 1989.