Egypt will hold renewed military exercises with US forces later this month for the first time since 2009. Washington canceled the biannual drill in 2011 amid the “Arab Spring” that overthrew long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak; and again in 2013 following a large-scale Egyptian army crackdown on protests.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that some 200 American troops would participate in the event, scheduled for September 10-20 at the Mohamed Naguib military base in Egypt. US Maj. Adrian J. Rankine-Galloway stated that, “These have been an important series of exercises since 1981, and it’s a good thing for our military-to-military relationship to return to ‘Bright Star’ [code name] again.”
Egypt has for decades been one of Washington’s closest Middle Eastern allies and US military aid—to the tune of $1.3 billion annually—has served to entrench the 1979 peace deal with Israel, a pillar of regional stability. The Arab world’s most populous nation has long been viewed by the US as a lynchpin of its regional foreign policy as well as an essential conduit through which to project power and thus protect its interests in the region.
But the strategic relationship was badly damaged under then-US President Barack Obama, who backed Mubarak’s ouster in favor of the Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi. After the latter was deposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the wake of a counter-revolution, relations between Washington and Cairo soured.
Enter President Donald Trump, who moved immediately to reset bilateral ties, inviting Sisi in April to the White House where he praised the Egyptian president and vowed to work together to fight Sinai-based Islamists waging an insurgency against Cairo.
Then, without warning, in an apparent course reversal in late August, the State Department announced it was withholding $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and delaying a further $195 million, ostensibly over concerns about the country’s deteriorating human rights record. The move came as a shock to Egyptian officials and was made public just hours before top White House adviser Jared Kushner was set to meet with Sisi in Cairo.
And then, just as suddenly, in another apparent backtrack and amid obvious internal confusion, President Trump reportedly called Sisi to reaffirm the “strength of the[ir] friendship” which would “overcome any obstacles.”
According to Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, the entire episode seemed botched. “The law [governing the cut-off of aid] gives the discretion to [US Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and he decided to use his authority. Whether he consulted Trump is unknown.
“The US president is likely surrounded by people who do not know what is going on in Egypt,” he explained to The Media Line, “and he should have been given better advice. Trump himself has said he would not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, but then something completely different happened. According to what he has said so far, though, he will not impose his ideas of democracy.”
In fact, Mazel argues that Egyptian politics cannot be viewed through the lens of American democracy, but rather relatively, in a more nuanced fashion and as a work in progress. “There is indeed a problem with human rights, but Egypt is a Muslim country governed by Sharia [Islamic law] for over 1,400 hundred years and you cannot become a democracy overnight,” he stressed.
The former ambassador argues that Sisi is not a dictator like [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi, and he “needs American support in order to sustain the reforms that he needs to change Egypt.”
The Egyptian president has indeed made clear his top priority is to modernize the country, where half of some 90 million people live on less than 2 USD per day and depend on government subsidies to survive. To this end, Sisi—despite having inherited an economy in shambles and largely dependent on foreign loans—has initiated major infrastructure projects, including the construction of an entirely new capital city.
As a result, Egypt’s economy has grown by about 4.5% for the past two years, even though the country has been plagued by an insurgency which has reduced tourism income from about $12 billion dollars per year while Mubarak was in power to only $3-4 billion. Cairo has also lost billions of dollars in gas revenue, as the pipeline to transport the resource has been attacked upwards of a dozen times.
“There are between 500-1,000 jihadists in northern Sinai challenging Egypt’s rule in the Peninsula,” according to Yaakov Lappin, a military and strategic affairs correspondent and analyst. “They belong to Sinai Province, the local ISIS franchise formed in 2011 by members of the previous Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terror group,” he explained to The Media Line.
As such, Sinai has been a hotbed of terrorism for many years, but since the middle of 2016 the attacks have become less frequent. “The military,” Lappin continued, “has been able to substantially reduce the threat posed by Sinai terrorists, when compared to five years ago. It has paid a high price in casualties to do so.”
But while Sisi’s counter-terrorism operations appear to be paying dividends, he, too, remains under constant fire for a different crackdown, one targeting civil society.
In May, the Egyptian leader enacted what is viewed by many as draconian legislation regulating aid agencies, particularly those funded by the West. Several local groups, including those working with victims of torture, say the law may force them to shut down entirely.
As regards torture, a Human Rights Watch [HRW] report released on Wednesday outlines the prevalence of the practice by Egyptian officials, who allegedly harass “political detainees with techniques including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape…[which] probably amounts to a crime against humanity.” Since Sisi’s ascension to power, the watchdog group claims that authorities have “arrested or charged [some] 60,000 people, forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time [and] handed down preliminary death sentences to hundreds more.”
The primary target, according to HRW, has been the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement.
Hence the ostensible reason for the US’s recent decision to halt aid to Egypt. And while justifiable, realpolitik suggests that Washington will likely turn “a half-blind eye” towards Egyptian human rights abuses, at least in the short-term, as there are many other factors at play—not the least of which is Cairo’s relationship with North Korea, which recently tested both a ballistic missile over Japan as well as a hydrogen bomb amid a heightening war of words with Trump.
The two countries developed military ties in the 1970s, when Egyptian fighter pilots were trained by Pyongyang ahead of the 1973 war with Israel. There have been reports of Egypt selling the North Koreans scud missiles, while a United Nations panel claimed in 2015 that Port Said was being used by North Korean front companies engaged in weapons smuggling. As regards business links, one of Egypt’s wealthiest citizens, Naguib Sawiris, owns the company that helped set up North Korea’s main cellular telephone network in 2008.
As tensions mount in the Pacific, Trump may be inclined to offer Egypt carrots, rather than sticks, in exchange for Sisi downgrading ties with Pyongyang, thereby further isolating the hermit state.
Another reason Washington may seek a rapprochement with Egypt—despite its violation of human rights and suppression of personal freedoms—is because of Cairo’s progressive re-entrance into the orbit of Russia, its former patron in the 1950s and ’60s. Sisi has united his position on the war in Syria with Moscow’s, for example, and is reportedly helping Russia gain influence in Libya. The Egyptian leader and his counterpart Vladimir Putin have signed arms deals worth billions of dollars and also formalized massive long-term agreements for Russian companies to build nuclear reactors in Egypt.
As geopolitically significant it was when the US in the 1970s wrenched Egypt away from the Soviet axis, any comprehensive realignment today of Cairo with Moscow—which would effectively solidify Russia’s reemergence in the region—could potentially have far greater long-term impacts. It would come as nation states throughout the Middle East teeter on the brink of collapse, with Putin all too happy to manipulate the instability in his favor or to fill power vacuums outright. The Russian leader already calls the shots in Damascus and has forged a formidable alliance with Iran and its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon, which together threatens to undercut nearly five decades of American dominance.
Within this context, then, Lappin believes that the upcoming joint military exercises “are more than merely symbolic and can be seen as an American attempt to reassert itself as Egypt’s superpower ally in the face of Russian attempts to gain influence.” Such a move would also accord with the US president’s overall signaled intention to move closer to Sunni powers and reverse course from the foreign policy of the Obama administration, which courted Shi’ite Iran at the expense of traditional allies.
According to Mazel, Egypt simply has no substitute for Washington, and “even though under Obama Egypt moved towards Russia and China, for Cairo the US is the most important country.” And, historically, vice versa as regards Washington’s interests in the Middle East—a reality that may finally be crystallizing for Trump.