For months, the Obama administration has been pleading with Egypt’s military government to take minimal steps to justify the full resumption of U.S. aid, including the release of imprisoned foreign journalists and secular prodemocracy activists. The generals, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this year, "need to help us to help them." However, the regime of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi did just the opposite, pressing forward with political prosecutions and preparing new "counterterrorism" laws that would criminalize virtually all opposition to the government.
The administration’s response has been a cave-in. Last week it announced that it would transfer 10 Apache helicopters to Cairo that it held up last year, reversing its previous position that the delivery of major weapons systems depended on "Egypt’s progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government." Separately, it notified Congress that it was proceeding with $650 million of the $1.5 billion in aid for Egypt in this year’s budget to fund ongoing contracts and items connected to counterterrorism, border security and nonproliferation.
Technically, the administration’s action may have been justified under the legal terms governing aid to Egypt. They allow some funding to go forward even if the State Department does not certify that the country is carrying out a promised transition to democracy. But more broadly, the policy is indefensible. In effect, the United States is giving the Sissi regime a vote of confidence even as it installs the most repressive regime Egypt has known in at least half a century.
Not surprisingly, the aid delivery prompted bipartisan resistance in Congress. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department, announced that he was putting a hold on the funding, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., also voiced opposition. They were right to do so.
Mr. Kerry no longer contends, as he did for months after July’s military coup, that the Sissi regime is "restoring democracy." But the administration argues that it should still support narrow U.S. security interests in Egypt, including maintaining the security of the Suez Canal and combating al-Qaida-linked militants operating in the Sinai Peninsula. That is what the Apaches are for: The Egyptian army has been making heavy use of the 35 U.S.-made helicopters it already possesses to fight in the Sinai.
Some 350 police and soldiers have been killed by insurgents in the Sinai since July. But the regime’s heavy-handed response may be doing more harm than good. Fragmentary reports have counted scores of civilian deaths and hundreds of homes destroyed in Apache attacks; the reports are fragmentary because journalists seeking to report on collateral damage are censored or arrested. As David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observes, additional Apaches may increase the terrorist body count but also the support among the Sinai population for al-Qaida.
In broader terms, the regime’s attempt to eliminate all opposition — including peaceful, secular and democratic forces — is doomed to failure. The United States only abets further chaos in Egypt by backing it. Mr. Leahy said that he would hold up new U.S. funding "until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law." Those are appropriate tests.