Trump and Pompeo supportive of Sisi but Congress not easing the pressure
In a revealing passage in journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reportedly said to the US president: “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation [referring to the investigation of the Trump team’s alleged collusion with Russia]. Are you going to be around?”
What Sisi was worried about was that his new friend in the White House, President Donald Trump, might be forced out of office, which would mean that Egypt would have to deal with another US president, who might be tougher on Egypt concerning human rights and other aspects of Egypt’s policies.
In his first year in office, Trump did get a bit tough on Egypt. He pressured Sisi to release an imprisoned dual US-Egyptian national who had been incarcerated, along with her husband, and allowed the US State Department to place an executive hold on $195 million in military aid to Egypt.
Although then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reflecting the views of the State Department bureaucracy, emphasised that the aid freeze was done largely because of Egypt’s draconian NGO law and human rights problems as well as US congressional mandates, Trump went along with it. He did so because he was upset over Egypt’s alleged assistance to North Korea at a time when he was putting maximum pressure on its leader, Kim Jong-un.
Tillerson had spoken out on Egypt’s NGO law and the arrest of dissidents during congressional testimony and he had allies on Capitol Hill. Indeed, Congress placed three conditions on aid to Egypt: Resolve the NGO “foreign funding” trial of 2013 in which 17 Americans, among other nationals, were convicted; repeal or significantly change Egypt’s NGO law; and discontinue assistance to North Korea.
What Trump was most concerned about was the third condition. After he sacked Tillerson in March and appointed Mike Pompeo to replace him, Trump was freer to pursue his own foreign policy with his new, like-minded secretary of state.
Not only did Trump and Pompeo share similar concerns about Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, they shared similar, sympathetic views towards Sisi’s government in Egypt.
After Egypt reportedly distanced itself from North Korea, Trump and Pompeo came to believe there was no reason to keep the hold on the suspended portion of US military aid to Egypt, especially because Cairo was struggling to put down a terrorist insurgency in the Sinai.
In August, Pompeo released $195 million in aid. By September 30, he will have to decide about releasing another $195 million in military aid to Egypt that is tied to congressional conditions but the betting in Washington is that he will exercise a national security waiver to ensure that the funds are not suspended.
This suggests that, under the Trump-Pompeo team, human rights in Egypt are not a concern. As one Egyptian democracy advocate noted, the Trump team “views human rights and national security as mutually exclusive.”
Congress, however, is not softening its pressure on Egypt and if the Democrats take control of the US House of Representatives after the elections in November, as is possible, even more pressure will be applied on Egypt because Democrats have traditionally been more outspoken on human rights than have Republicans. In the US Senate, for example, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has consistently linked human rights to foreign assistance.
Perhaps because he is sensing changing political winds in Washington, Sisi is hedging his bets, He has not only developed closer relations with Russia (receiving military assistance as well as the signing of a deal for a nuclear power plant) but is cultivating closer relations with China. Sisi’s early September visit to Beijing was geared towards developing “comprehensive strategic collaboration on all levels,” according to the Chinese ambassador to Cairo. While Sisi was in China, the Egyptian delegation signed deals worth $18 billion for various projects in Egypt.
Aid and project assistance from Russia and China come with no human rights strings attached because both are authoritarian regimes that have no interest in pressuring Egypt to liberalise its laws and practices.
Although Sisi currently has a friend in the White House and leading the State Department, he is not sure how long they will last in their positions, given the turmoil in Washington and the vagaries of the American electorate.
Sisi is keeping his options open.