Egypt: Caught between Washington and Moscow

US President Donald Trump should avoid his predecessor's mistakes regarding Egypt.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The latest move of the American administration – canceling part of its assistance to Egypt and suspending another part due to a lack of progress on human rights – has left Cairo stunned and angry.
Throughout his electoral campaign, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump reiterated that he would not interfere in the internal policy of foreign countries, especially allied countries. This was in stark contrast to his predecessor, who ostracized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — the man who ousted the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Mohamed Morsi.
Former president Barak Obama froze part of the assistance package, and turned a deaf ear to Egyptian pleas for greater financial aid and expert military training in guerrilla warfare to defeat Islamic terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. It had had the effect of pushing Egypt into the embrace of Russia, which was only too happy to help. New links were forged that eased Moscow’s return to the Middle East after a long hiatus.
Egypt has aligned itself with Russian foreign policy in relation to the Syrian crisis and even voted for a Russian draft resolution on Syria in the Security Council in October 2016.
Trump’s election had appeared to herald a new era. President Sisi was invited to Washington a scant three months after the inauguration; warmly received in the White House, he was hailed as a trusted strategic ally.
And then on August 22, the State Department announced that it was cutting $95 million of the annual aid package to Egypt and suspending a further $195m. Following outcry in Egypt, President Trump called Sisi the following day to reaffirm "the strong bonds of friendship between Egypt and the United States.” After all, Egypt has received more than $60 billion in American aid since 1977.
The episode left many unanswered questions. Apparently, Egypt had received no warning and only learned about the decision when it was made public — so it could not even try to prevent it. The State Department claimed to have informed Sameh Shukry in advance. The Egyptian foreign minister denied this, and said that he only received a call from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the 22nd, when the decision was already cut and dry.
In an effort to defuse the situation, a State Department representative stressed in a press conference that Egypt was a strategic ally and would receive more than a billion dollars for the current year. The amount withheld was partly the result of a recent decision by the Egyptian parliament to limit the activities of civil society NGOs, in spite of American opposition.
At the same time, a so called “leak” mentioned that close links between Egypt and North Korea were a matter of concern in Washington as well.
The two countries have engaged each other diplomatically for decades. The issue is raised periodically by Washington with no result so far. Egypt does have a troubling record on human rights, but one must remember that it has been a Muslim country for some 1,400 years and the clear majority of the population wants to live according to Shari’a, as was demonstrated by surveys carried out in recent years. The new constitution voted on during the Sisi presidency designates Shari’a as the main source of legislation. A similar situation is to be found in all Arab countries, and there is no great likelihood that they will become Western democracies anytime soon.
What, then, triggered the US move? Was it a decision taken at a lower level by someone at the State Department with no thought at to its strategic implications? Had the White House been consulted or even informed of a move running contrary to the president’s policy? It is true that the so-called Leahy Law of 2008 mandates the suspension of all or part of American military aid to countries guilty of “gross” human rights abuses. However, it is up to the secretary of state to decide when to invoke the law, and so far, it has been done sparingly. Did someone decide to embarrass the president by going against his policy? Is it one more indication of a dysfunctional White House staff?
Egypt is the most populous and most influential Arab state, with the largest Arab army. It has been at peace with Israel for nearly four decades, and is the leader of the Sunni coalition against Iran and Islamic terrorism. It was also a staunch ally of America's. This did not prevent Obama from ostracizing Cairo, seeking to appease Tehran and concluding a nuclear agreement that was perceived as a stab in the back by many Arab countries.
President Trump has been trying to undo the damage but with little success so far.
What is clear is that the Egyptian president, embroiled in a bitter fight against Islamic terrorism and with a state of Islamic insurgency in Sinai – which also threatens Israel – needs American assistance more than ever. He has undertaken sweeping economic reforms – much needed, highly unpopular measures that could threaten the regime. Furthermore, he is trying to eliminate extremist trends in the teaching of Islam. These important steps should have been considered by the State Department.
Egypt feels itself insulted and betrayed once again. There have been vociferous protests from political parties, members of parliament and commentators. President Sisi did not add his voice to that concert and told president Trump that he saw in American a strategic partner. Later he welcomed the American delegation led by Jared Kushner, ignoring calls to cancel the meeting. Nevertheless, there is a feeling that despite the protests of goodwill by the new president, America cannot be trusted – and that closer links with Russia are needed.
Coincidentally, the head of Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation came to Cairo to finalize an agreement to build four nuclear plants on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria for a staggering $27b. The project will be financed by a long-term Russian loan at low interest. Military cooperation and sales of military equipment launched during the Obama years are ongoing, with joint exercises; there are plans to set up a duty-free zone near Port Said on the Suez Canal.
As mentioned above it comes at a price: Egypt is aligning itself with Moscow’s positions on Syria and helping Russia’s renewed penetration in Libya. It is also developing links with China, which, like Russia, is making an all-out effort to distance Cairo from Washington.
Meanwhile, the new US administration does not seem to know what it wants, as the latest episode shows. This is not good news for the Sunni coalition – or for Israel, who is increasingly worried by American’s lack of response to Iranian’s encroachment.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.