Unconditional US assistance to Egypt is not the way to go
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.