WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has increased its contribution to regular war games with Egypt, even as the Biden administration faces increasing pressure from Democrats in Congress to curtail military funds to Cairo in response to widespread human rights abuses.
The US and Egypt kicked off the latest iteration of their Bright Star exercise series last week with Qatar and India joining for the first time as Washington increasingly looks to shore up defense ties across the Middle East.
This year’s iteration of the biennial exercise, which dates back to 1981 following the signing of the Camp David accords, includes participants and observers from some 34 countries, with 19 countries’ forces participating actively, according to the Egyptian army.
It also includes some 1,500 US military personnel, more than any other iteration held since Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the subsequent 2013 coup, in the latest sign of the Biden administration’s redoubled reliance on Cairo.
This year’s Bright Star event is “a demonstration of the important strategic security partnership between the US and Egypt,” US Central Command spokesperson Col. Troy Garlock told Al-Monitor.
Why it matters: The number of American personnel participating is more than double the previous Bright Star exercise during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, according to the US CENTCOM’s numbers.
It’s also nearly twice as many as under the Trump administration in 2018, which took the rare step of holding the exercise two years in a row after reinstating it following a suspension by the Obama administration, which came in response to now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup and the ensuing Rabaa massacre by security forces of several hundred unarmed protesters on the outskirts of Cairo in 2013.
The increased US role in Bright Star comes just weeks before the Biden administration faces a Congressionally imposed deadline to decide whether to withhold up to $320 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion in US military aid over continued abuses by Egyptian authorities.
Democrats in both chambers of Congress are ramping up pressure on the administration to withhold the full $320 million this year as rights groups say Sisi’s amnesties for political prisoners has been outpaced by new waves of arrests. Extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, sham terrorism trials and repression of Egyptians abroad have also been widely documented.
“For each political prisoner that has been released, Egypt has detained three more,” a group of Senate Democrats wrote to top diplomat Antony Blinken last month.
“As the administration’s decision to withhold a portion of Egypt’s $1.3 billion appropriation for each of the last two years demonstrates, the bilateral security relationship can be effectively sustained at a reduced level of assistance while upholding our values,” the lawmakers argued.
Regional coalition: Biden’s campaign promise to lead a human rights-based foreign policy has flown headlong into his administration’s decision to downsize its role in the Middle East in order to confront a rising China.
The administration has tasked the Pentagon with fostering defense and intelligence cooperation among Arab states and with Israel as part of a regional bulwark to contain Iran in absence of major US forces.
Following a nadir in ties after Sisi’s 2013 coup, Washington has in recent years increasingly relied on Egypt’s diplomatic and intelligence clout to smooth over conflicts in Libya and between Palestinian factions in Gaza and Israel. Late last year, Cairo took charge of a newly stood-up naval security task force patrolling the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, Egypt provides the US Navy with privileged access to the Suez Canal, enabling it to respond more quickly to crises in the Persian Gulf that could damage the global economy and further erode US strategic relations in the region.
Know more: Bright Star serves as a forum for the US military to train Egypt’s forces in counterterrorism, counter-insurgency and other forms of irregular and conventional warfare while displaying its own capabilities to other nations, which first joined the exercises in the 1990s.
Israel has participated in a handful of military exercises with Arab neighbors over the past year amid renewed push at normalization by the Biden Administration, but is not taking part take in this year’s event. Qatar dispatched forces for the first time this year, in the latest sign of thaw between Doha and its neighbors following the four-year blockade led by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain on the country in 2017.
India dispatched more than 500 personnel to Bright Star as the US seeks to bring the rising South Asian power into closer economic cooperation with Middle Eastern states in a bid to offset China’s growing influence.