Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of State, at his confirmation hearing – Office of the U.S. President-elect
CAIRO – 25 August 2017: The United States’ decision to withhold up to $290m in economic and military aid to Egypt announced Tuesday signals the decline of the Egyptian state’s confidence in Washington, particularly the White House and the Department of State. The decision was not a spur-of-the-moment one, for it was leaked to Reuters on July 27 that the US Administration intends to withhold a portion of the aid — a leak that aimed to test the waters in Washington and Cairo.
Leaking information about the decision could be interpreted within the framework of institutional conflict in the new US administration over foreign policy in the Middle East, including opening a new page with Cairo. The decision could also be understood within the framework of Washington’s disagreement with Cairo over a number of regional and international issues. The true magnitude of the situation and Washington’s intent, however, remains behind closed doors, where negotiations between the two governments are taking place.
The fact that Egypt’s loss of trust in the policies of the new US administration is not because of any financial harm that could befall Egypt as a result of the latter withholding a chunk of military aid, since, from previous experience and lessons, Egypt knows better than to jeopardize its national security by putting all its eggs in one basket. Consequently, Egypt has already been taking precautionary measures against any uncalled-for American “action” regarding military aid and has already started following a new strategy, whose objective is to diversify its sources of armament, reaching out to partners such as China, Russia, Germany, France and others.
The decline in trust this time stems from Cairo’s view that Washington’s decision reflects a state of confusion and shallowness in its decision-making process regarding strategic relations with an important ally like Egypt, which has recently assumed a vital and effective role in securing regional peace and stability, and in supporting international anti-IS efforts. Withholding aid at this time could spell a direct and unprecedented downfall of relations between Washington and Cairo — and Egypt has the right to respond strongly to Washington’s public disdain of the Egyptian government’s recent efforts in restoring political, economic and social stability in the country.
The failure to properly assess the situation in Egypt led Washington to jeopardize its strategic relations with Cairo to put some pressure on Egypt in aspects that might be necessary, but not a priority, to the Egyptian citizen. The public in Cairo started to have positive views of the United States after Donald Trump became president last January. However, this picture will not last long, because the Egyptian citizen knows quite well that the U.S. aid to Egypt, and in particular the military part of it, aims to establish peace in the Middle East. The Egyptian citizen also knows that the annual military aid agreement never included a clause that the U.S. administration must be satisfied with human rights and freedoms in Egypt.
The American administration should now be reminded that Egypt uses the U.S. military aid in the following aspects: fighting terrorist groups in Sinai; maintaining regional security and peace, especially that Egypt shares borders with Gaza and Libya, both politically unstable zones, besides sharing a border with Sudan, whose political stability is fragile; and, finally, securing the extremely vital Suez Canal. Hence, Egypt was never meant to use the U.S. military aid to further a political agenda or to violate human rights, which Washington claimed yesterday was the reason behind withholding aid.
Additionally Washington’s excuses for its decision indicate an explicit interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, according to all international conventions. According to Reuters, withholding the aid is because of “the ratification of the controversial new NGO Law,” and this necessitates that we, again, remind the American administration of another important fact: the new NGO Law was ratified by the majority of a parliament elected in fair and transparent elections that were recognized by the U.S. Besides, the process of passing this law took a considerable amount of time in the context a profound social dialogue, and there have been no protests on the Egyptian street nor has there been any Egyptian or American poll to indicate a disapproving majority among Egypt’s public. These facts lead us to an important question: why does Washington describe the law as controversial? And who is it controversial for?
The answer to these questions lies in Congress, which acts against Egypt’s interests inside Washington, and research bodies like the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). These two research institutions focus their attention on Egypt alone and have never issued a single report on freedom and human rights violations in other Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar for example. The aforementioned bodies are only two examples of research centers and human rights organizations that exercise constant pressure on the American administration to suspend its military aid to Egypt. But let me state this as clearly as possible: mixing things up and using the aid as a pressure point to settle disagreements between Washington and Cairo will cause unprecedented harm to the relations between the two countries at a time when the United States is trying to procure all the help it could in the Middle East.
Trump’s administration bears the responsibility of protecting U.S. interests from poorly made decisions, which clearly are putting its relations with Egypt at risk. I believe that the decision will have serious consequences and that Cairo will have a strong response, especially in light of how Washington’s decision jeopardizes Egypt’s international reputation. The question now is: has the decision really been made because of the NGO Law and for the sake of protecting human rights in Egypt? Or are there other reasons related to Egypt’s new foreign policy strategy that are based on all international players even if it disagrees with the U.S.? I believe that if the answer is the latter one — nobody should believe the U.S. when it says it seeks to protect human rights and promote democracy abroad. The answer, however, will remain behind closed doors and may not be known soon.
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