Unconditional US assistance to Egypt is not the way to go

Sunday 12/03/2017

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry recently visited Washington for the first time since the election of US Presi­dent Donald Trump. During the visit, Shoukry met with several US officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H. R. McMaster, to reaffirm strong US-Egypt ties and prepare for an upcoming visit by Egyptian Presi­dent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Some have predicted the Trump administration would herald a revitalised US-Egypt relation­ship, citing Trump’s praise of Sisi and the Egyptian government as proof. Indeed, during their meetings with Shoukry, Tillerson promised additional assistance for Cairo’s counterterrorism ef­forts and McMaster emphasised Trump’s determination to expand bilateral cooperation. Days before Shoukry’s visit, US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of US Cen­tral Command, met with Sisi in Egypt and described Egypt as “one of our most important partners in the region”.
Those trumpeting this vision of a renewed US-Egypt relationship view it as a reversal of Obama-era policy, which was marked by a year-and-a-half partial freeze on the delivery of major weapons systems to Egypt.
Even after military equipment started to be released to Egypt, the Obama administration ended the preferential practice of cash-flow financing that allowed Egypt to sign contracts for military equip­ment on credit. US Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives that would reverse Barack Obama’s de­cision to end cash-flow financing as of 2018.
The privilege essentially enables authorised recipients of US foreign military aid — only Egypt and Is­rael currently benefit from it — to pay for US defence items in instal­ments over years rather than all at once. This allows Egypt to sign large contracts for military equip­ment on credit, which obligates future US military aid appropria­tions to those purchases.
Egypt has been authorised to use cash-flow financing since 1979. This is viewed as US recogni­tion of the importance of bilateral ties. Some argue that by announc­ing that cash-flow financing would end for Egypt from 2018, the Obama administration signalled that it was questioning the United States’ special relationship with Egypt. Indeed, Rohrabacher’s resolution called Obama’s decision “a departure from long-standing United States policy”. It also said that the extension of cash-flow financing would strengthen rela­tions between the two countries.
From Egypt’s perspective, the reinstatement of the preferential financing system is a priority. During his meeting with Sisi, Votel expressed interest in resuming the Bright Star military exercise with Egypt that Obama cancelled in 2013. While its resumption would be in tune with the mood music about a renewed relationship, for Egypt, it is the financing mecha­nism that remains a higher goal.
This was apparent from Shoukry’s discussions in Wash­ington with officials, including US Representative Kay Granger, R-Texas, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. Shoukry repeat­edly made connections between the security challenges facing the United States and Egypt.
Cairo may be hoping that by framing counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East as both US and Egyptian national security inter­ests, the Trump administration will remove holdover conditions Obama placed on assistance to Egypt. These would include the financing system.
However, the new administra­tion should resist pressure to reinstate the financing privilege to Egypt. Suspending it is in line with Trump’s overall foreign policy rhetoric about US alliances, espe­cially in critical areas such as the Middle East and North Africa. The removal of this special aid mecha­nism makes US assistance to Egypt more flexible. It becomes less like a blank cheque, in the phrase used by many on Capitol Hill.
Suspending the financing would allow the United States to better tailor its military assistance to Egypt as threats emerge in the region. It would also not have to obligate funds years in advance.
This would not mean the abandonment of the US-Egypt relationship. Rather, it presents the administration with an oppor­tunity to maximise US assistance while making it clear that it cannot be taken for granted.
Rhetoric that promotes uncondi­tional assistance for fear of losing influence in Egypt or angering a critical US ally presents a false choice. US influence in the Middle East has, in fact, changed over the past seven years as conflict and turbulence have spread.
It would be a mistake to con­tinue the special financing mecha­nism for Egypt for the sake of maintaining influence. Moreover, it is possible to fit assistance poli­cies to the new realities without calling into question the funda­mental importance of the bilateral partnership.
Sisi’s visit to Washington, ex­pected in early April, will be an op­portunity for the Trump adminis­tration to affirm its commitment to the relationship but that does not mean unconditional assistance.