Analysis: Egypt’s transition in a post-U.S. environment

Source : ET


Egypt and the U.S. have shared a strong and positive relationship which has spaned many decades. In contrast to the hostile relationship between the U.S. and many of Egypt’s neighbours, the Egyptian-U.S. relationship is founded on mutual interest and has enjoyed many prosperous years. Through the allocation of military and economic support to the Egyptian government, the U.S. gained an important ally in the region and both states have worked together tirelessly to promote Middle Eastern peace and security.

Military and economic aid increased significantly in the wake of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, and Egypt is the second largest non-NATO recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel.

In a sharp break from the past, Trump’s presidency has overseen a major reversal in U.S. foreign policy. His “America First” campaign promised a retreat from international affairs and foreign interference, cutting the U.S.’s global responsibilities and focusing on domestic challenges.

Trump has failed to fill many positions in his administration including 59 ambassadorial positions, which makes the U.S. less effective in dealing with international obstacles and leaves gaps open for exploitation. Notably, Trump is yet to nominate an ambassador to Egypt. The U.S. has also taken a step-back from its leading role in international organisations and has withdrawn from several agreements, indicating an end to the U.S.’s drive for increased globalisation.

As part of its global retreat, the U.S. has withheld significant financial support for Egypt, which traditionally surpasses $1.3 billion a year. In August of last year it was reported that the U.S. would withhold $290 million in financial support to Egypt. Failure to make progress in respecting human rights and democratic norms were at the top of the grievance list.

Although the U.S. still provides Egypt with extensive military and economic support – support no other country is likely to replicate – Egypt’s eyes are no longer fixated west. Egypt and the U.S. have found it increasingly difficult to find common ground on security challenges in Egypt and the wider Middle East, and have different perspectives on sensitive human rights issues within the country.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi told a number of U.S. Congress members in a meeting in 2016 that human rights and freedoms in Egypt should not be viewed from a “Western perspective,” and that Egypt’s security challenges constrain him from upholding the high standards of the West.

Sisi conveyed a similar messaged during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017. “Human rights should not be considered exclusively in terms of political rights. We are not France in its cultural development. We are a different part of the world.”

Sisi’s statements show he feels no obligation to toe the U.S.-Western line, as it were, and sees the opportunity to forge strategic relationships elsewhere.

The U.S.’s retreat from globalism has opened the gates for China and Russia to flex their muscles on the international stage and fill the newly opened void. While China has stepped-up its role in international organisations, Russia has taken advantage of the myriad new opportunities for strategic partnerships in the Middle East. Putin has become the go-to man in the Middle East, dictating the state of affairs within Syria, and for all the parties involved.

Since the June 30 Revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has invoked a new strategy to diversify its foreign relations. Pushing aside the U.S. who traditionally had a monopoly on Egypt’s military imports, Sisi has diversified its suppliers. Among others, France, Russia and Germany have received sizeable orders for military hardware from the Egyptian regime.

In 2015 Egypt agreed to purchase 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, as part of a $5.9 billion arms deal, and in 2016 Egypt also agreed to purchase two Mistral helicopter carriers, transforming Egypt’s military capabilities. The ships were originally ordered by and built for the Russian military, however delivery was withheld when the EU sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, Sisi’s trip to Russia resulted in a $3.5 billion arms deal which aimed to upgrade Egypt’s missile system and expand Egypt’s already sizable air force. The deal also included 50 MIG-29 fighter jets, MIG-35s, Su-30s and S300 anti-aircraft missiles. In 2015 Egypt agreed a deal with Russia for 46 Ka-52 helicopters, and there is still discussion about adapting the order, or writing a new deal, to include Ka-52Ks with naval capability.

In a reciprocal gesture, on December 12 Russia resumed passenger flights to Egypt to help support its troubled tourism industry. Tourism was once a major contributor to the Egyptian economy, and there has been a concerted effort to bring foreign currency back to the country once again. Russian civilian air traffic to Egypt was halted in 2015, after militants detonated a bomb on a Russian flight leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 people.

Two major threats to Egypt’s security and stability – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – have also forced Egypt to look elsewhere for coordinated security and support, which it has found in its Gulf allies.

The Arab Quartet – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab of Emirates and Bahrain – retaliated against Qatar’s sponsorship of terror groups throughout the region; notably including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which has been outlawed in Egypt since 2013. In June 2017, the Quartet abruptly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and boycotted the country.

Facing Qatari-sponsored MB hostility, Egypt was unlikely to find an effective ally in the United States. Qatar houses a strategic U.S. military base, home to 11,000 U.S. personnel, which is essential for the U.S. to maintain a prolonged and effective presence in the region.

Furthermore, the U.S. is unable and unwilling to assist Egypt in addressing its concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. While Ethiopia and Sudan welcome the project, there has been a severe backlash from Egypt. The Nile has been the Egypt’s lifeline for thousands of years and there is genuine concern the dam will threatened Egypt’s water supply, creating agricultural challenges amongst others.

Egyptian worries over the dam project have become entangled with the regional dispute with Qatar. Both Ethiopia and Sudan have occupied a position unfavourable to Egypt regarding the dam, and have taken steps to align themselves with the opposing block in the Qatar Crisis. While both claimed neutrality, arguing that the Qatar Crisis is a purely Gulf matter, this stance this has been challenged by Egypt and its Gulf allies.

In November 2017 Qatar and Ethiopia signed several agreements to enhance bilateral relations in the economic and diplomatic spheres, with an aim to further strengthen the relationship. Ethiopian officials have confronted claims coming from Egypt that Qatar is funding the dam, and argue that Ethiopia does not need Egypt’s permission to benefit from natural resources.

Sudan’s professed neutrality has been the source of continued aggravation between it, Egypt, and much of the Gulf who are growing increasingly hostile towards Khartoum. Although Sudan is part of the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen, its rejection of the boycott is illustrative of its deepened bilateral relations with Qatar.

Egyptian concerns were heightened in July 2017, when the Sudanese parliament summoned Ahmed Bilal Osman, the Sudanese Minister of Information, to officially apologize to Al-Jazeera for comments he made that the channel wants to topple the Egyptian regime. His comments came a month after the closure of Al-Jazeera topped the list of demands made by the Quartet.

Tensions rose once again when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan in December 2017, in the first trip by a Turkish president to Sudan. Turkey is, and has been an adamant supporter of Qatar during the boycott imposed by the Arab Quartet. Since Turkey recently opened a $50 million military training base in Somalia, there are fears of Turkey in entrenching its influence in the region. It was agreed with Sudan that Turkey will rebuild an Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, and construct a naval dock for civilian and military vessels. Military concessions are expected.

Sudan in particular is using the water security issue to exert political pressure on Egypt, while allowing the country to forge closer strategic alliances with Qatar, Turkey and Ethiopia. Countries are entrenching a self-imposed binary opposition, parasitic to regional security.

The dampening of the U.S.’s relationship with Egypt is not simply the decision of the Trump administration, but reciprocated. The response of the Trump administration to the long standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel while ignoring the Palestinian claim to the city, has left Middle Eastern leaders scratching their heads. While Egypt signed peace with Israel in 1979, the three wars fought between Egypt and Israel were very costly. Egypt still remains supportive of the Palestinian cause and is a key deal-breaker between competing Palestinian factions.

Egypt stands with its allies, and enemies in the region in support of the Palestinian cause. A shared grievance is unmatched in forming relationships and strengthening bonds, and Washington knows how to cause uproar.

There is no doubt that Trump has strained tensions with his partners in the Middle East. The U.S. State Department said on 16 January that it will be withholding $65 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Welfare Agency, a U.N. agency that serves the Palestinians. This has been viewed as another U.S.-led effort to deny the Palestinians their rights, and linked to the December 6 decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Withholding military aid to Egypt is one thing – Egypt is a relatively prosperous country compared to its war-torn neighbours, and would remain stable if the U.S. were to withdraw aid in its entirety – but the decision to withhold Palestinian aid has far reaching consequences.

The ramifications of the Trump administration’s attitude towards Palestine resonate throughout the region. In respect to Egypt, the U.S. has taken two cartridges to the feet; figuratively of course. The U.S. has alienated and aggravated arguably the most culturally influential country in the region. There have been a number of threats and protests against Trump’s decisions, yet the cultural and social response is often overlooked. With an unparalleled film and music industry in the Middle East, Egypt’s cultural and social influence is far reaching, leaving the U.S. vulnerable and an easy target for the creative judgement of the people.

Having an effective regional and international role requires a state to establish, maintain and reinforce is power mechanism. Hard power or soft power? In order to command influence a combination of both is necessary. However, a state must enhance the stability of its power through a diversity of sources, and resource. Egypt has departed from its total reliance on the U.S. and shifted its alliances, creating a more balanced field, and thus helping the state face any physical threat through a plethora of alliances and forward thinking positive relationships.

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