The United States looks at the upcoming Egyptian presidential elections with mixed – although increasingly critical – feelings. During his recent state visit to the Middle East, at the end of January, Vice President Mike Pence paid traditional lip service to Cairo’s strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, confirming President Trump’s will to re-establish good political relations “after a time when our countries seemed to be drifting apart”.
However, while the general mood is certainly improving, especially if compared to the harsh times of the Obama administration, several issues still hinder a real rapprochement. Before the meeting between Pence and al-Sisi, White House staff said Pence was expected to raise the issue of human rights, political freedoms, and freedom of expression, all sensitive issues for the Egyptian leadership.
On the other hand, Trump’s position on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital opened a new front of crisis, forcing al-Sisi to distance himself from the ally’s position and to reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to a two-state solution, considered “the only way to end Palestini-an-Israeli conflict”. In the Libyan conflict, al-Sisi’s Egypt openly sides with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army against the UN- and US-backed Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. The coming elections also risk becoming a thorny issue, with Washington increasingly embarrassed by al-Sisi’s repressive measures and by the crushing of any opposition. These and other elements all converge in making US-Egypt relations far weaker than in the past and cast a dim light on the future of their political relations.
Security issues are still the most solid common ground. Since 1979, the US has given over 47 billion dollars to Egypt in the form of military assistance, although in summer 2017 Washington has partially reduced its engagement. Humanitarian concerns, coupled with Trump’s feeling of having been “blindsided” by al-Sisi on some issues, go a long way towards explaining this changing attitude. However, pressures to revive the frozen packages remain. Al-Sisi’s effort to eradicate militia movements in northern Sinai fits into the narrative as well as into the broader US campaign against the so-called Islamic State and its local branches, such as the Wilayat Sinai (“Sinai Province”), now one of the main targets of the Egyptian armed forces.
Al-Sisi’s efforts to promote a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories are another common ground, being seen as instrumental in supporting Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy. In Congress too, al-Sisi commands good (although shrinking) support. Recently, several Congressmen have voiced their doubts, the most prominent of them being Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who publicly raised concerns about the fairness and democratic nature of the upcoming elections. McCain’s criticism of an “unprecedented crackdown on political activism and fundamental human rights” led to a slamming reply from the Egyptian foreign ministry; however, reinstatement of the cash flow to Egypt did not drop from the debate: while critics of Egypt’s human rights record have opposed it, others have suggested that cash flow could be restored, although under certain conditions.
Nonetheless, Egypt’s importance in US eyes is clearly declining. Trump’s choice to revive the US-Saudi Arabia “special relationship” weakens Egypt’s ambitions to act as the leading country in the Arab world. At the same time, Trump’s Israel policy confirms Jerusalem as the military pivot of the region, thwarting Cairo’s ambition in this field too. The willingness to reaffirm a threatened regional role can explain the recent rapprochement with Russia, as well as the “dangerous relations” that Egypt entertains with North Korea. On the other hand, these moves contribute to confirming the country as an unreliable ally. The point was recently raised in a New York Times oped by Andrew Miller and Richard Sokolsky, affirming that “[b]ecause of its internal decay, Egypt is no longer a regional heavyweight that can anchor America’s Middle East policy” and calling for a sharp reduction in US military assistance “to align our resources with our priorities”.
Until now, Washington has reaffirmed its traditional Egyptian policy of supporting the country and its leaders, turning a blind eye to their misdemeanours and generously financing the military apparatus. However, this policy is becoming less and less sustainable, especially due to its poor results. Since the Camp David agreements, Egypt has been one of the pillars of the American order in the Middle East, a role that Cairo widely exploited to enhance its political and military standing. Now things are changing and (even worse from an Egyptian perspective) a largely bipartisan consensus seems to emerge around the need to change the “old rules”.
1. “VP Pence says US stands 'shoulder to shoulder' with Egypt”, ABC News, January 20, 2018.
3. Andrew Miller, Richard Sokolsky, “Actually, Egypt Is a Terrible Ally”, The New York Times, December 18, 2017.