US moves to cut aid to Egypt amid failure to meet human rights criteria

Published 26.08.2017 00:00

After being elected as U.S. president, Donald Trump said Egypt is one of the U.S.'s best allies in the Middle East.

Receiving Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Washington last May, Trump praised Egypt's leader, saying he had done "a tremendous job under trying circumstances."

Despite the fact that the Egyptian regime has jailed thousands of people since the bloody coup in July 2013, led by then-army commander el-Sissi, President Trump refrained from touching on any humanitarian issue, instead saying that he was going to visit Cairo soon and calling el-Sissi a "fantastic guy."

In another very visible display of this, Trump took a photo with el-Sissi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz under a lighted ball in Riyadh while signing arms deals worth billions of dollars.

Regarding the issue, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said that he does not believe that U.S. cooperation with other countries should be based on conditions regarding human rights, saying "this creates obstacles for our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests." However, despite el-Sissi's controversial track record on human rights and his close relations with the Assad regime and Russia, President Trump saw no problem with the warm atmosphere.

However, things have, apparently, changed, or seem to have changed, since the U.S. administration declared it might cut and delay economic and military aid to Egypt. This move coincided with a visit from Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Cairo has reacted angrily, calling the decision a "misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries together for decades. It reflects a lack of careful understanding regarding the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt, as well as the size and nature of the security and economic challenges faced by the Egyptian people." Cairo officials claimed that the move would have "negative consequences on the realization of common U.S.-Egyptian interests." The U.S. has decided to cut the aid partially because Egypt has not fulfilled the criteria set by U.S. Congress regarding human rights. Of the $290.7 million aid package allocated to Egypt, $195 million was in military aid and Secretary of State Tillerson "signed a so-called national interest waiver, and those funds will remain available to Egypt as long as the country makes human rights improvements." Had Tillerson not signed the waiver, the money would have been returned to the Treasury by Sept. 30 - the end of the current fiscal year. "The remaining funds - $95.7 million in economic and military assistance - was cut from the Egypt account," Politico reported yesterday.

Not only the Trump administration but also the former Obama administration was not keen on challenging Egypt's oppressive measures against dissidents. The only move made by Washington under former President Barack Obama was to freeze the sale of war helicopters. Moreover, former State of Secretary John Kerry said the coup "was a restoration of democracy."

What has led the U.S. to alter its approach to Egypt remains a question to be answered. However, the two different sides of the issue can be addressed. Firstly, Egypt's friendly relations with North Korea, which have continued since the 1970s, might have started posing a problem for the U.S. Also, escalated tensions between Russia and the U.S. in the last month might have triggered the U.S. to send a warning to Cairo, which allowed Russia to erect a military base near the Libyan border. Secondly, the changing circumstances and the cadre within the U.S. administration since Trump's advisers and main strategist Steve Bannon recently resigned or were fired could also be contributing factors in the decision. The ousted cadre was known with their positive approach to Egypt and hostility against the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, they regarded the Egyptian regime as an ally against the so-called "radical Islamist" movements. Furthermore, Trump's former entourage has had controversial relations with Russia, as well.

It is not certain yet whether the move to cut aid to Cairo will have a profound impact on Egyptian-American relations or if it will potentially change the course of the U.S.' approach to Cairo. It seems unlikely that the White House will adopt a hostile approach to Cairo, as Egypt has been one of its main allies in the Middle East, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, in combatting Daesh-affiliated groups in Sinai.

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