Washington’s Slap to Egypt is Unfair and Unwise

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
Guest Commentary

August 29, 2017

Egyptians saw a potential friend in the 2016 US presidential candidate Donald Trump. His win delivered hope that the frosty relationship between Cairo and Washington, triggered by the Obama administration’s support of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood regime, was poised to thaw.

Barack Obama withheld aid to Egypt as a punitive measure even as the new leadership had inherited a country on the brink of Muslim Brotherhood-engendered chaos and bankruptcy. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait stretched out a generous helping hand to keep the most populous Arab nation afloat.

Today, no thanks to President Obama, the country’s economy – stock market, foreign reserves, exports, tourism and the energy sector – is back on positive ground.

President Trump invited his Egyptian counterpart President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to the White House to “reboot relations”. He described the Egyptian President as “a fantastic guy” while assuring him that he has “a great friend and ally in the US and me”. Moreover, he indicated that he would label the Brotherhood ‘terrorist’, only to backtrack.

If I were in President el-Sisi’s shoes, I might be thinking ‘with friends like these who needs enemies’. Trump’s ‘kiss’ reminds me of the Godfather’s – the kiss of death. His buddy-buddy stance towards President Vladimir Putin has seen Russia sanctioned and he is now threatening a trade war with China whose President Xi Jinping he described as “a very special person”.

On the very day that Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner arrived in Cairo to discuss Middle East peace and ways of solidifying US-Egyptian relations, the US Department of State informed the Egyptian government that most of the aid to Egypt, mandated under the Camp David Agreement, is to be suspended over human rights concerns.

Cited is the new NGO law, approved by the Egyptian Parliament, restricting the activities of non-governmental organizations to developmental and social work. The bill was passed primarily to prevent NGO’s funneling funds to the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist affiliates that have been on a rampage of murder and destruction for years.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed the decision as “a misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations” between allies, adding it showed a “lack of understanding of the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt.”

On Thursday, the Egyptian leader received a call from President Trump, who expressed his desire to improve the relationship and overcome any obstacles, while affirming the strength of the friendship between Egypt and the US. Nice sentiments surely cannot heal the wounds of such a humiliating punch that serves to embolden the Brotherhood’s goals.

President el-Sisi has admitted on many occasions that although his country is on the road to democracy, he is not in a position to loosen-up on civil society as long as Egypt is under attack and its improving economy still remains fragile. Several Christian churches have been bombed resulting in major fatalities, and hundreds of soldiers and policemen have been killed.

It makes no sense to crack down on a country battling terrorists on the northern Sinai Peninsula and being forced to protect its porous border with Libya from Daesh infiltrators while asking that same country to be an intermediary in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Unless we assume that the US harbours covert geopolitical ambitions under the cover of human rights.

Are we to seriously imagine that US government officials and lawmakers are losing sleep over the rights of Egyptians who are free to elect a new president next year?

Turkey has detained 100,000 of its own citizens and arrested almost half that number with little said. The war on drugs waged by President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has led to thousands of extra-judicial killings, yet the Philippines can look forward to a US grant worth $433 million next year!

The worst state-sponsor of terrorism on the planet, Iran, received a lucrative deal which certainly was not conditional upon its human rights record.

In short, there is a marked discrepancy in the way the US and the UK treat Egypt and other countries. When France, Germany, Belgium or Turkey were attacked and implemented stringent anti-terrorism measures – emergency law in the case of France and Turkey – they rightly received an outpouring of sympathy and offers of assistance. Egypt, on the other hand, gets only blame.

When a Russian passenger plane flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh was allegedly bombed by a Daesh-affiliated group incurring a terrible loss of life in October 2015, the UK chose to suspend flights to the Red Sea resort based on a US intelligence report citing “terrorist chatter” even while the cause was under investigation.

Despite Egypt’s cooperation with multiple teams of British aviation security experts, a huge investment in airport security, not to mention the clamour of British holidaymakers, airlines and tour companies, almost two years on, flights have yet to be reinstated leaving even British government ministers bemused.

I have to wonder who is really in charge of the US government. Was Trump even behind the suspension of aid or was his arm twisted by the State Department that has been operating out of a different playbook, or by a few Republican lawmakers, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, who continually look for excuses to hammer Egypt?

Graham and his usual companion Senator John McCain visited Cairo in 2013 where they held a press conference demanding the release of ousted former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi while referring to the people’s revolution as a ‘coup’ and were politely shown the door.

Egypt fought for its independence from Britain. President Gamal Abdel Nasser refused to be under the boot of any big power and President el-Sisi is cut from the same mould in that respect. Obama’s hostility forced Cairo towards Moscow to update its weaponry and Russia and Egypt are negotiating a contract to build a nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Alexandria.

Amid a climate of anti-Russian hysteria in the US could this be one of the driving factors behind the US government’s attempt to bring Egypt to heel? If so, it will not work but may have the opposite effect to that intended. The US has reneged on a clause in the Camp David agreement and has thus handed Cairo the right to either withdraw or renegotiate.

Egypt is a diplomatic, defence and trading partner of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and most GCC States and, as such, I would ask our leaderships to register their strong objections to Washington’s unwarranted insulting slap to one of our own.

I am not privy to the underlying reasons behind Washington’s attempts to undermine Egypt’s fortunes, but I still remember a lecture given by a former member of the Rand Corporation before the US Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee in July, 2002. The paper, headed “Expel Saudis from Arabia” summarized this: “Iraq is the tactical pivot, Saudi Arabia the strategic pivot, Egypt the prize.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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