US-Egyptian relationship heading down a slippery slope
Despite US President Donald Trump’s close embrace of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier this year, relations between the two countries appear to be on a downward path.
In August, the Trump administration suspended $195 million in US military assistance — out of the usual $1.3 billion per year — largely because Congress already was planning to restrict aid over Egypt’s human rights violations and lack of democratic progress. The administration also decided to transfer about $96 million in economic aid, some of which has been held up for years because of Egyptian bureaucratic obstacles, to other countries.
Under US law, the executive branch must withhold 15% of the $1.3 billion in military aid if the State Department cannot certify that Egypt is making progress on human rights. Although the law carries a national security waiver, the Trump administration chose not to exercise it as a signal of its unhappiness with certain policies of the Sisi government.
Trump also was concerned about Egypt’s military relationship with North Korea. Although the Egypt-North Korea relationship goes back to the Cold War era, it apparently angered Trump, who wants to put maximum pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests. Trump conveyed this concern directly to Sisi in a telephone call, according to various press reports.
The US Senate committee responsible for appropriation of foreign aid proposed only $1 billion in military assistance and only $75 million in economic aid to Egypt for fiscal year 2018, a decrease from $1.3 billion and $112.5 million, respectively from 2017. In addition, the Senate bill calls for increasing the withholding of aid to 25% unless the State Department determines that Egypt is making tangible progress on human rights and allowing civil society organisations to function without interference.
So why the shift? First, Trump wants to show that while he regards Sisi as an ally in the fight against terrorism, he will not be oblivious to aspects of Egyptian behaviour, such as its relationship with North Korea, that interfere with his agenda.
Second, although Trump has had differences with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on several matters, he appears to be letting Tillerson run the Egypt portfolio for the time being. Tillerson has been reflecting the State Department’s institutional frustration with Sisi over domestic issues, which mounted when Sisi signed the restrictive NGO law that had been in limbo for many months.
Third, influential US senators who most closely follow the US-Egypt relationship, such as Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, long have been frustrated with Sisi’s poor human rights record and his unwillingness to change it. They are in powerful positions to do something about the situation. Trump apparently did not want another fight on his hands.
The problem for the bilateral relationship is that US pressure, and particularly using aid as a lever, has not worked in the past and is not likely to work now. Egypt is one of those prideful countries with an ancient civilisation where such pressure can often backfire, as the Obama administration discovered. When former US President Barack Obama decided to withhold a large portion of military aid to Egypt in October 2013 in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime did not bend and even doubled down on repression.
US aid does not have the same bang for the buck it once had. Because the annual $1.3 billion in US military aid has been constant for over three decades, its value has declined in real terms when adjusted for inflation. US economic aid, which was once $800 million a year, now hovers around $100 million.
Sisi has also shown he can play the international game quite well: He has broadened economic ties with China and renewed military ties with Russia. He retains the political and economic support of the Saudis and the Emiratis, and his decision to join these wealthy states in boycotting Qatar earlier this year was largely aimed at maintaining this support.
Although Sisi can be accommodating to Trump to some degree — he has reportedly distanced Egypt from North Korea and has moved closer to South Korea in the past couple of weeks — the administration and Congress are not likely to see an improvement in human rights or democratic progress simply because Washington is withholding a portion of US aid and using it as leverage.
No matter how tempting it is for US officials to use aid as a lever, it will not work in Egypt’s case. In the meantime, the once close US-Egypt relationship is fraying.