When Donald Trump became US President in November 2016, Egyptian American relations promised to see an upturn after three years of decline under the Obama administration. President Trump promised the US would support Egypt economically and militarily in her war against the terrorism that was striking from inside and outside the country. So it was with surprise that Egyptians received news on 23 August that the US was cutting or withholding more than USD290 million of its aid to Egypt over human rights concerns.
“We wanted to send the message we’re not happy at the lack of progress in human rights and the NGO law,” a State Department official said. The new law, which has been a bone of contention between the administrations of the two countries, places restrictions on the establishment of NGOs and requires that donations of more than about USD550 be preapproved. A number of rights groups complain that the law is restrictive, but the government accuses foreign-funded human rights groups of trying to undermine the social order and, in specific cases, national security.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry issued a sharp statement expressing displeasure over the US decision which he described as “reflecting poor judgment of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades,” as well as “a lack of careful understanding of the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt, as well as the size and nature of the security and economic challenges faced by the Egyptian people.” He warned of potential “negative consequences for the realisation of common US-Egyptian interests”.
President Trump called Egypt’s President Sisi and stressed the “strength of friendship” between the two allies, promising to “develop” bilateral relations to “overcome any obstacles”.
US decision making
How do Egyptians see the US aid cut?
The response on social media has been almost unanimous that Egypt should not allow her arm to be twisted and that the country should ultimately do without American aid.
Muhammad Meneisi, former deputy to Egypt’s Foreign Minister, told Watani that Egyptians would do well to understand the mechanism through which American decisions are taken. “In general,” Mr Meneisi says, “four institutions participate in American decision making: the White house, State Department, Pentagon, and research centres and think tanks. The strongest among them in the current case was the State Department which, sadly, includes a strong pro-Muslim Brotherhood current absolutely antagonistic to Egypt. It did not help that Egypt had passed the NGO law which the US saw as restrictive of freedoms but never saw why it was passed in the first place. Americans must know that the NGO law was passed according to Egyptian legislation, after specific rights NGOs were notoriously used through foreign funding to foment unrest inside Egypt.”
Mr Meneisi says that President Trump’s call to President Sisi exposed that the decision to cut US aid to Egypt was made mainly by Congress and the State Department, and could have been meant to embarrass him. “Once we grasp this,” he says, “We should not get upset or escalate matters unnecessarily.”
Egypt should adequately answer the US move through a bunch of measures. According to Mr Meneisi, the US has favourable status in a number of Egyptian services; this status may be withdrawn. As an example, US ships have priority in crossing the Suez Canal and do not have to wait in line for days as other ships do. This priority status may be terminated. Likewise, their aircraft have priority in takeoff from Egyptian airports; this too may be withdrawn. Other measures may also be applied.
No ‘major’ loss
“We are talking about two parties,” Waheed Abdel-Mageed, Editor-in-Chief of al-Siyassa al-Dawliya (International Politics), said. “One is a giver of aid: the US; the other is the receiver: Egypt. If Egypt wishes no one to interfere with her domestic affairs, she should accept no aid from anyone.” Dr Abdel-Megeed says that, during the 1960s, Egypt was a giver of aid to Arab and African countries; that was when her economy was strong enough. “If we wish to need no aid,” he says, “We should work to achieve economic strength. As long as we are on the receiving end of aid, we should know that donors have their own view of how Egypt should be run, and will not provide aid if they see anything inadequate with that view.”
Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby, Executive Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, sees the US decision to cut USD95.6 million in economic assistance and withhold USD195 million in military aid, was taken by the State Department under pressure from Congress, in response to Egypt’s NGO law which many in the US see as violating human rights. “I believe we should exercise self-restraint and not rush into any hasty decision in retaliation against the US aid cut,” Mr Shalaby says. “We should not escalate the matter into a diplomatic crisis, but should wait and see how US behaviour vis-à-vis Egypt develops. It is very obvious that there is conflict among various US institutions, and we’ll have to wait and see how this ultimately plays out. As to the sums cut or withheld, they will not on their own constitute a major loss to Egypt who accepts no interference in their domestic affairs.”
Diversify economy, sources of arms
According to Alaa’ Haidar, Chairman of the Board of the State-owned Middle East News Agency, the US administration appears to have forgotten that Egypt is up to her ears fighting terrorism. “They have dealt with Egypt as though all conditions are stable,” Mr Haidar told Watani. “As though there are no Hamas and Israel at our northeast border, both of whom for various reasons desire Palestinians to locate in the Sinai; and as though incoming tourism were not hampered and thus damaging our economy. It is no secret that Egypt is challenged with enemies who work to create unrest and instability in the country, and who are not happy with the economic reform led by President Sisi’s administration.”
Mr Haidar insists that President Trump is facing substantial resistance and pressures at home; which is why the decision was taken to withhold US military aid to Egypt even though he is all for fighting terrorism.
“It is very good that Egypt is working to diversify the sources of arms, and has been buying French and German military equipment,” Mr Haidar says. “In parallel, we should work to reform and diversify our economy, heading to new markets such as Africa.”
Gamal Nkrumah, expert in African affairs, strongly seconded Mr Haidar’s view. “Egypt is a free State,” Mr Nkrumah says, “and will not bow to foreign pressure. If the US has cut or withheld its aid, Egypt should look for other ways to stand on her feet and not be incapacitated. Africa is at our doorstep, a continent rich in resources and with huge markets that can open to Egyptian products. President Sisi has visited many African countries and is looking for closer cooperation on the economic and strategic levels with Africa. We should capitalise on that.”
30 August 2017