Behind the photo ops, an increasingly tense Egypt-US relationship
Courtesy: AP

From Cairo, it can be easy to feel like the United States is an enthusiastic supporter of Egypt’s government, even as authorities in Cairo carry out a harsh crackdown on human rights groups, journalists and other opposition figures. In addition to a stream of military and economic aid that has flowed freely after a brief interruption in 2013, Egypt has received numerous high-profile visits and supportive public statements from American officials.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, in particular, seems to be a darling of the Republican Party. One former critic, US Senator Lindsey Graham, recently gave a glowing endorsement of Sisi as “the right man at the right time.” Even figures who occasionally make statements about the human right situation in Egypt, like Secretary of State John Kerry, emphasize Egypt’s importance as a regional partner — sentiments that, when convenient, are amplified by local media.

According to Washington, DC-based analysts, the reality of the relationship is much more complicated, and many US government officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with Cairo.

Opinions on cooperation with Egypt tend to vary according to how knowledgeable people are about the country and the issues it is facing, says Michele Dunne, senior associate of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For the general American public and members of Congress who don’t follow issues closely in the Middle East, there’s just a sense that the main problem in the Middle East is Daesh and that Egypt is a victim of Daesh, and that we have to stand by Egypt in fighting terrorism and in keeping Daesh from keeping a major base of operations in Sinai,” she says.

People who are specialists in Middle East policy are less likely to uncritically support Egypt’s security apparatus, Dunne says. “Among those in the US government who are more well informed, many of them see that terrorism in Egypt is a locally grown phenomenon, that these are Egyptian groups with Egyptian grievances, some of which have affiliated themselves to Daesh, but that’s really secondary. It’s really about Egypt, and many things that have gone on in Egypt — particularly since 2013 — are feeding the extent of grievance and alienation that is pushing recruits towards groups like Daesh,” she says. 

Concern about human rights violations — and the potential of abuse to radicalize youth — is coupled with a feeling that Egypt’s government has become “a nightmare to work with,” says Stephen McInerney, executive director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

“There’s been a real increase in the past year in anti-Americanism in the Egyptian state-owned media and there’s a lot of real frustration with that here in Washington, including in the US government,” says McInerney. “Many Egyptian government officials sort of act contemptuous of the United States. They act as though they are entitled to all the money, but they are very difficult to work with. They are not responsive, they give confusing and contradictory and misleading responses to requests.”

The Egyptian government can be particularly difficult when it comes to implementing economic aid programs, a situation outlined in a recent report by POMED. International organizations assigned to implement mutually agreed upon projects are refused registration or operating permits. Some, like RTI International, a US-based non-profit that has been carrying out education programs in Egypt for more than a decade, have been subject to attacks in the media. In April, RTI was accused by privately owned Youm7 newspaper of advancing a US-military conspiracy to use aid money to stir up sectarian strife and to undermine Egyptian values by supporting gay rights.

“The Egyptian government and military, the security apparatus, have fostered an environment in which independent NGOs and civil society organizations are not able to freely operate and do not feel comfortable operating. That’s an environment in which foreign assistance cannot be delivered, because foreign assistance depends on the ability of NGOs to deliver the aid,” says McInerney.

These difficulties have led to a backlog of US$500 to US$700 million in unspent economic aid. Another recent report, by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s auditing service, highlighted failures by the US government to perform legally required human rights vetting of some security personnel receiving training from the US, as well as gaps in inspection of US-provided military hardware. While the GAO focused on the responsibility of the United States to ensure such checks are carried out, it noted that “limited cooperation from the Egyptian government” hampered US monitoring programs.  

These reports contained few surprises for well-informed insiders, but putting them in the public domain has prompted response. “The fact that this has been documented in official reports creates a lot of information that I think members of Congress are already staring to draw on in asking questions about backlog in economic aid, why it hasn’t been delivered, and whether it should be cancelled,” Dunne says.

Frustrations in Washington are amplified by a sense that the United States will be harshly criticized in Egypt, no matter what is does or doesn’t do. Despite pouring billions of dollars of aid money into the country, a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 10 percent of Egyptians had favorable opinions of the United States, the lowest rate among countries surveyed. “There’s a sense here that the United States tried to play a positive role after 2011, and that the United States got nothing but blame for whatever it tried to do to help,” Dunne says.

“When the US stays out, it’s criticized. When it gets involved — which I would argue it hasn’t gotten deeply involved — it’s criticized,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These criticism come from across the ideological spectrum, ranging from pundits claiming the United States (and a shifting cast of improbable co-conspirators) are plotting to weaken and divide Egypt to activists who argue that the United States cares less about democracy than it does about advancing American business and military interests.

To the latter critique, the United States responds that American and Egyptian interests aren’t mutually exclusive. “US foreign assistance in Egypt and around the world has always had the twofold purpose of improving lives and furthering America’s interests. Foreign assistance carries out US foreign policy by promoting broad-scale development as it helps expand stability and free societies, enhance economic prosperity and create trade partners, and foster goodwill abroad,” the US embassy spokesperson tells Mada Masr. However, opinion polls indicate that this message has largely failed to resonate with Egyptians.

What actions could the US take?

If US officials are indeed unhappy with the tenor of the US-Egypt relationship and the direction Egypt is heading, it raises the question of what the United States can actually do about it.

“It’s just not realistic to believe that one government can force another government to do or not do things,” says Dunne. “The United States basically gets to decide whether it endorses and is therefore in someway complicit in the government of Egypt’s actions or not. It doesn’t get to decide what government of Egypt does.”

The United States can signal its support or disapproval through public statements or by advocating for Egypt with international institutions, but the most powerful lever is aid. “For a long, long time there was a sense that US$1.5 billion in assistance — US$1.3 billion military and remainder economic — would go on forever. Now I think that’s a little bit more under question,” Dunne says.

Until 2015 the United States granted Egypt what’s known as cash-flow financing, effectively granting Cairo credit to make huge military purchases that would be paid off with future aid. This arrangement, essentially locked Congress into granting 10-figure military aid allotments in perpetuity. That privilege will be phased out in 2018, giving the United States much more flexibility to reduce military aid.

It’s not impossible that the United States will consider cutting aid, says Alterman of the CSIS. “The United States has gotten a lot from its relationship with Egypt, some of which is historical. Egypt was a huge prize in the Cold War.  The United States has gained a lot and continues to get a lot from military cooperation with Egypt, intelligence cooperation with Egypt,” he says. Among these benefits are a large market for American grain, rights to military overflight and passage through the Suez Canal as well as diplomatic cooperation.

“But Egypt’s not irreplaceable,” Alterman says. “If the role it expects the United States to play is to unquestionably support Egypt despite constant insults and reckless actions by the Egyptian government, I don’t think that can work.”

Alterman also dismisses the possibility that US officials are concerned by Egypt’s deepening relationship with countries like Russia and China.

“If one considers Russia, a country with a GDP the size of Spain, comparable to a relationship with the US, than you have a basic problem with math. Russia has an ailing economy, and Russia causes mischief but has a very hard time getting constructive things done anywhere in the world,” Alterman says. “China doesn’t see a huge upside in Egypt, and certainly doesn’t want to invest a lot in Egypt. The idea that China is going to be Egypt’s savior is not based on any conversations with anybody in China.”

“Egyptian officials have taunted, and said, ‘well, we can just go anywhere else.’ And the American official response relayed to me has been ‘let them.’ They’ll see what the deal looks like. It’s not so good,” Alterman says.

None of this, however, means that human rights defenders in Egypt should count on strong shows of support from the United States if the crackdown in Egypt continues.

“For certain there is a lot of concern in Washington about the human rights situation in Egypt, but it is very difficult for US officials to figure out how to make that concern plain without somehow cutting off all support for Egypt,” says Dunne. To a certain extent, the United States — like all foreign governments — has to decide whether to push for human rights and possibly risk its economic and security relationship with Egypt. “It’s always been a difficult question. The threats that Egypt faces from terrorism are real. They are also, as many US officials see, partly of the Egyptian government’s own making.”

“I think there will be some level of US support for them, but unfortunately I don’t think that US government or the US administration have a track record that shows that support will be consistent or as strong as it ought to be,” McInerney adds, speaking of rights activists in Egypt. “The support that community has received from the international community, and especially from the United States, has been episodic and erratic. It’s been important when it has come, but it has not been consistent. Unfortunately, I fear that that will remain the case.”

Note: This article has been amended since it was first published to amend the comparison with Russia’s GDP. 

Isabel Esterman 

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