US-Egyptian relations fray after unexpected cut in American aid
Egyptians are getting a taste of what Americans have lived through since January 20: The erratic and unpredictable gyrations of an administration that does not seem capable of speaking with one voice or communicating a consistent message.
The election of Donald Trump to the White House appeared to signal a new dawn in US-Egyptian relations following eight difficult years during the Obama administration. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was among the first to congratulate Trump on his victory and one of the first world leaders with whom the new president met. The two heads of state seemed to be in sync on almost every important issue, from fighting terrorism to resisting Iran to allowing Russia to call the shots in Syria.
Trump and Sisi even touched a glowing orb together in Riyadh. It doesn’t get better than that.
More apparent good news came over the summer: First was the report that the US State Department, as part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s departmental restructuring project, was planning to delete human rights and democracy-promotion from its revised mission statement. It was these issues that had created tensions between Egypt and the United States under President Barack Obama and before that under President George W. Bush.
In early August, the Pentagon announced that the US-Egypt Bright Star military exercises would resume after several years of abeyance under Obama. This signalled that the Trump administration was making security ties with Egypt the priority of the bilateral relationship. This was music to the ears of Sisi and his government.
Then the other shoe dropped: On August 22, the Trump administration announced that it would withhold from Egypt $96 million in aid and delay another $195 million in military funding. The justification? “It’s about human rights,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
Egyptian officials were, to put it mildly, shocked. And not at all happy. The announced aid cuts came just hours before Jared Kushner was to arrive in Cairo for high-level discussions on rebooting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law and jack-of-all-trades — one of which is solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under Sisi, Egypt has forged close ties with Israel, so the cooperation of Cairo is vital to progress on peace.
Initially, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry cancelled its meetings with Kushner’s delegation, issuing a statement saying that “Egypt sees this measure [the aid cuts] as reflecting poor judgment of the strategic relationship that ties the two countries over long decades and as adopting a view that lacks an accurate understanding of the importance of supporting Egypt’s stability.” Later in the day, however, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry sat in on a meeting between Kushner and Sisi.
Although Kushner went to Cairo to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Egyptians likely added a new item to the agenda.
Sources in Washington report that Trump signed off on the decision to suspend aid and that Tillerson called Shoukry to inform him of it. The New York Times reported that the real reason for the sanctions may be Egypt’s relationship with North Korea, a theory that makes sense given the administration’s concerns about the regime in Pyongyang. A White House read-out of Trump’s most recent telephone conversation with Sisi, which occurred July 5, noted that Trump discussed the urgency of supporting all UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.
The pressure on Egypt over human rights issues, however, is growing in Washington. It is coming not only from the usual advocacy groups but from Republican politicians as well. The focus of criticism has been Egypt’s recently enacted and controversial NGOs act. The administration may have been stung by the criticism it received when the story emerged about the State Department’s new mission statement.
Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International’s advocacy director, said: “It’s encouraging that the State Department is acknowledging the deteriorating state of human rights in Egypt and the grave implications for stability in the Middle East.”
So where do things go from here? Making any prediction involving this US administration is risky business but there is no reason to believe that human rights has become significantly more important to Trump or his closest foreign policy advisers. They still view Egypt as an important — perhaps even the most important — regional actor.
The small cut in economic aid will hardly be noticed: The United States has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt that is yet to be spent because Cairo has not approved of the proposed projects. In effect, the current aid cut is merely reducing the size of this pipeline of backlogged funds.
Impressions matter, however, and the Sisi government will likely be more cautious about becoming overly confident in an administration that is proving to be a less reliable ally than Cairo may have hoped. The glow from the orb has dimmed a bit.