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Feb 17, 2011 | Commentary

A consistent feature of US foreign policy in the last three decades has been very high levels of military assistance to Egypt. Overall US foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged slightly more than $2 billion each year since Egypt signed the Camp David Peace Accords in 1979, with military aid adding up to $40 billion over that time period. In President Obama’s 2011 budget request, the level of military aid remains constant, at $1.3 billion. In that sense, nothing has changed.

What has changed is the way the US classifies its military assistance. Almost all of the funds now provided to Egypt are for “Stabilization Operations and Security Sector Reform.” This may seem like a good thing. After all, Egypt is a military dictatorship which suffers from the very problems SSR was designed to address—a preoccupation with regime security instead of human security, a lack of oversight and accountability, and widespread human rights abuses by state security agencies. Unfortunately, the US government’s “SSR” programs do not address any of these problems.

According to the US government’s Foreign Assistance data, this US$1.3 billion a year is meant to “support security sector reform through training and operational support.” The figure of $1.3 billion is well known and widely cited as the amount of US military assistance to Egypt. What has happened is not a change in policy but the misappropriation and instrumentalization of a concept—SSR—that emerged out of the development community as an antidote to earlier, Cold War-era, forms of security assistance.

SSR is fundamentally a liberal-democratic project, placing at least as much emphasis on how a state’s security forces are governed as on their operational effectiveness. Oversight, governance, and human rights are conspicuously absent from the US government’s SSR funding. Instead, those programs are found under the “democracy, human rights, and governance” umbrella, which, incidentally, receives a tiny fraction of the funding of “SSR” programs (see Table 1).

Table 1: Annual US Funding to Egypt, 2006-2011

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Stabilization Operations and Security Sector Reform $1,289.5M $1,301.2M $1,292.7M $1,303.3M $1,301.6M $1,301.1M
Rule of Law and Human Rights $16.0M $17.3M $18.1M $10.2M $10.5M $10.5M
Good Governance $4.3M $11.3M $5.0M $2.5M $6.0M $6.0M
Civil Society $29.8M $21.5M $31.8M $7.3M $8.5M $8.5M

Why does it matter how the US government classifies its aid? Because the term security sector reform implies a range of reforms—including justice, governance, transparency, accountability—that are not actually funded under the US government’s SSR umbrella. This is form without content. At its best, this confuses the reform process—“why should we free up additional funds for SSR when we are already funding $1.3 billion worth of it?”—and at its worst, it seems like a cynical attempt to continue to provide security assistance through military training and the provision of military hardware—while appearing to contribute to a broader, more legitimate, democratically-based, reform process. Egypt is hardly a unique case. Military reform (more particularly train-and-equip programs) has tended to dominate broader reform processes in a way that diminishes the holistic vision of the SSR model.

The stated goals of the US government’s democracy, human rights and good governance programs, by the way, echo the kinds of reforms demanded by the Egyptian protesters. The human rights funding is meant to “uphold the rule of law principle under which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights laws.” Good governance “supports avenues for meaningful public participation and oversight, as well as for substantive separation of powers through institutional checks and balances. Transparency and integrity are also vital to government effectiveness and political stability.” Finally, civil society “provides mediums (media, civil society organizations, advocacy groups / association) through which citizens can freely organize, advocate and communicate with their government and with each other…”

Now that is the kind of SSR the US government should be engaged in.