Problems on hold
The US’s recent decision to cut or withhold more than USD290 million of its aid to Egypt gave rise to controversy aplenty among Egypt’s politicians and media circles. To begin with, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a calm, balanced statement that described the US decision as “reflecting poor judgment of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades,” and as reflecting “a lack of careful understanding of the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt in facing security and economic challenges.” The statement said Egypt was hoping the US administration would look at the aid programme as a vital means to achieve the interests of both countries and to preserve their strong, strategic relations.
The MFA statement expressed awareness of the political responsibility it shoulders, and revealed that it would not draw Egypt into political conflict or hostility with the US. Given that the magnitude of strategic relations and interests that bind the two nations far exceeds the US aid cut, the decision ought to be handled wisely and sensibly in order to contain its consequences. The scene should be adequately set for negotiations regarding it, rather than slipping into an uncalled for diplomatic rift. Political and media circles must realise that this is a national security issue that involves top national considerations which go far beyond the aid cut.
The Egyptian official stance refrained from making a big issue of the US decision, and let it pass. This made very good sense in light of the nature of the decision making circles in the US administration, especially given that when decisions are issued, reversible measures are usually pondered in parallel, with the aim of preserving the strategic interests between the US and its allies.
I believe that the political and media circles in Egypt should not have slipped into frantic campaigns that overstated and denounced the US decision, oblivious to the repercussions this might have regarding the charging of public opinion against Egypt-US relations. In so doing, the strategic relations that bind the two countries were discounted. Some voices called for renouncing US aid to Egypt, be it economic or military. One intellectual commented, “If Egypt wishes no one to interfere with her domestic affairs, she should accept no aid from anyone, and should work to achieve economic strength, in order to go back to the glories of the 1960s as a rich State, itself a giver of aid for Arab and African countries.” Another media professional suggested that Egypt should diversify its sources of arms in order to gain military independence from the US and put an end to its need to US military aid. To add insult to injury, a former ambassador with MFA suggested that Egypt should retaliate by withholding the special privileges that the US ships and planes enjoy in Egypt, with the aim of prompting the US administration to review the decision of the aid cuts.
I see that all these opinions did not address the crisis correctly—if there is a crisis in the first place. The suggestions jeopardise US-Egypt relations and propel Egypt into a state of hostility against and faceoff with the US, which could have serious consequences. Fortunately, there were other opinions that elected to exercise patience and deliberation in evaluating the situation, in order to be able to allow the Egyptian leadership to handle the situation for the best of Egypt’s strategic interests. I was drawn in this context to an article published in the daily State-owned Al-Ahram on 1 September under the tile “Notes on US aid to Egypt” by Muhammad Megahed al-Zayyat. Here are excerpts of Dr Zayyat’s opinion:
• US official circles justified the aid cut to Egypt on account of human rights concerns and Egypt’s NGO law. Other US circles leaked additional reasons that relate to Egypt’s refrain from participating in the US blockade against North Korea. It is obvious that this decision reflects the stance of the US State Department, and is in line with the stance of a number of Congressmen who hold antagonistic views against Egypt. This reflects that there is no clear, unanimous policy among US decision-making circles regarding Egypt. It is obvious that there is a state of confusion, duality and contradiction between the declarations issued by US President Trump and other institutions such as Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon.
• Mutual interests govern US aid to Egypt, whether economic or military. Both States have benefited from this aid, part of which is a consequence of the Camp David Accords of which Egypt and Israel are signatory. We must realise two things; first, the amount withheld through the recent US decision, USD290 million, does not exercise a great negative impact on Egypt, but is rather symbolic; it does not threaten a strategic change in the US policy towards Egypt. Second, US military aid to Egypt constitutes a strategic interest and benefit for the US.
• It is imperative that we deal with the US recent decision calmly and reasonably. We must be keen to control any disruption in the relations between Cairo and Washington, in order to cut the road before any remnant of the old US administration which was antagonistic to Egypt. Egypt must strive to contain the negative aspects of the US stance, and to avoid slipping into any diplomatic crisis; it should work for a strategic dialogue that aims at preserving its interests.
I agree with Dr Zayyat on his assessment of the situation, and on giving confident space to the Egyptian administration and leadership to deal with the issue of US aid and the entire US-Egypt relations.
10 September 2017