The Trump administration announced on 22 August that it is reducing US military and economic aid to Egypt by $96 million and freezing a further $195 million due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The decision surprised the Egyptian government. It was also a surprise to many US foreign policy observers, especially since President Donald Trump took office earlier this year. The relationship between his administration and the Egyptian regime has been so warm that Trump quickly contacted President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi after the aid announcement to confirm “his keenness to overcome any obstacles in order to maintain cooperation between the two countries.” We need to pause to consider the nature of the sudden decision, and its weight on the Egyptians and on Trump himself, if we are to understand its reasons and consequences.
The first thing to notice in this regard is that the US media and official statements on the aid cut have linked the move to two key factors: legislation imposed by the US Congress banning 15 per cent of foreign aid to countries which do not comply with human rights standards; and Washington’s disapproval of Egypt’s links with North Korea. In accordance with Congressional rules, Egypt must change its policies by 30 September otherwise the frozen $195m in aid will also be cut from the annual total of $1.3 billion that America gives it.
US reports say that Trump has warned Al-Sisi about his regime’s continued cooperation with the North Korean government, especially on the military side by exporting weapons. The Egyptian government, though, has not responded to the warning, although North Korea’s economic and military blockade is one of the most important goals of Trump’s foreign policy right now. Under pressure from Congress, and possibly from other US institutions such as the State Department and defence institutions, the administration has decided to use its aid package to Egypt as a lever to change its policy.
However, US action appears to be limited in scope and impact. It is linked to an external portfolio — cooperation with North Korea — and a restrictive domestic human rights issue; it ignores the larger issue of the democratisation of Egypt. The Trump administration does not seem willing to exert any real pressure to open up the Egyptian political arena. It seems that the most it is asking of Al-Sisi is for a halt to Egypt’s most blatant violations of human rights, such as the imprisonment of US-Egyptian citizens and journalists, the criminalisation of civil society institutions and the imposition of destructive restrictions on NGOs’ work. Other than that, Washington does not seem interested in serious democratic transformation in Egypt.
Although the US action is limited in purpose and motives, it reflects an important shift in Egypt-US relations under Trump. The aid measures have taken Egyptian-American relations from the special connection between the two presidents to the wider circle of the links between the two governments and their institutions. Ever since Trump took office, his personal relationship with Al-Sisi has angered many US observers as well as Arabs. US analysts believe that Trump exaggerates his admiration of Al-Sisi’s character and policies, despite the violations he commits, as if the US President has found in his Egyptian counterpart a model for all foreign leaders. This is especially so given the admiration and reverence offered by Al-Sisi to Trump, as if he’s trying to satisfy his narcissism and ego.
Trump has clearly not been able to cope with the pressure applied by the State Department and Defence Department regarding aid to Egypt, not least because of the fall in his personal and policy popularity rating. A number of his most important aides have left their positions, including security adviser Michael Flynn and political adviser Steve Bannon. Both are known for their political extremism and fondness for dictatorships around the world. These changes and a more prominent role for US institutions have been linked to Trump’s backdown from some of his declared foreign policy positions, primarily those relating to the Gulf crisis and his initial support for the countries blockading Qatar; he now favours a more neutral role led by the State Department. It looks as if the latest move against Egypt is in the same vein. Trump’s support for Al-Sisi’s dictatorship is being changed to a slightly more balanced role involving the State Department and other institutions such as the Department of Defence as well as Congress, which sets conditions for foreign policy and legalises it but does not carry it out.
The special relationship between Al-Sisi and Trump has not produced any dramatic changes so far in the wider relationship between Egypt and the United States, despite the aid move and the fact that early next year a law passed by the Obama administration comes into effect, setting out how US military aid to Egypt is disbursed and restricting Egypt’s ability to buy weapons using US aid only. The current system doesn’t specify how US aid to Egypt must be spent; it is basically a line of credit to be used for major arms deals. From 2018, the Egyptian government will have to use aid to buy weapons only for specific security purposes, such as counterterrorism and border protection.
Nevertheless, the nominally biennial Operation Bright Star joint manoeuvres are due to resume next month for the first time since 2014. However, this year they will be limited, only involving about 200 US military personnel, not thousands as in the past, and they will focus on specific issues, such as the transfer of expertise in the fight against terrorism.
Egyptian-American relations appear to be in a downward spiral due to Cairo’s declining importance to the United States, whether with regard to the Middle East peace process, the war on terror or the development of the region, and, of course, in the area of democracy and human rights. This decline favours other countries in the region that seem more capable of playing what were once Egypt’s roles. The Gulf States now have more weight than Egypt in areas such as the peace process, the war on terror and economic influence. Other countries, such as Tunisia, are more open to democracy and freedom, and provide better models for peaceful coexistence.
This decline is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The recent aid move is a shock to the Egyptian regime, and evidence of the US institutions’ dissatisfaction with the regime’s policies; the special relationship between Trump and Al-Sisi will not prevent Washington from springing unpleasant surprises. Although the US does not seem to be interested in calling on Cairo to implement greater democratic reforms, the move over its aid to Egypt is a major embarrassment to Al-Sisi and his regime. This could be exploited by Egypt’s critics among international human rights circles, if only they were better organised. Sadly, they’re not.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 29 August 2017