Washington’s ‘human rights’ justification for withholding aid to Cairo is just a cover for the real strategic reason By Abbas Juma, international journalist, political commentator, Middle East and Africa specialistEgyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his US counterpart Joe Biden in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 11, 2022 © SAUL LOEB / AFP
The United States has decided to punish Egypt for its alleged non-compliance with human rights norms. It should be noted that the subject of human rights is traditionally used by the US to apply pressure on Egypt and many other countries in the region.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Washington will redirect $85 million in military aid, previously promised to Egypt, to Taiwan and Lebanon. And some American lawmakers insist on stripping Egypt of another $235 million in aid out of a total of $1.3 billion annually.
Not the first time
Last year, the US withheld $130 million to Cairo. The official reason was the same – human rights violations. Experts then started talking about putting a freeze on American-Egyptian relations, which had warmed under the administration of former US President Donald Trump. Trump had even called Egypt’s leader his “favorite dictator.”
But the current president, Joe Biden, has disliked Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi from the start. He criticized Egypt’s leadership during his presidential campaign, promising that there would be no more “blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”
Egypt-US relationship: It’s complicated
The rift in relations between the US and Egypt arose with the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011. Prior to that, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for 30 years (1981-2011), had established close ties with Washington. It was under him that the US started allocating more than a billion dollars of aid to Egypt annually, which began to be provided after the Camp David Accords of 1979. Only Israel received more from the Americans.
However, Mubarak’s pro-US orientation did not help him in 2011. Everything happened according to the classic scenario – friendship with America’s authorities did not guarantee security, and at the critical moment, the US turned away from its ally and supported the rebels. This can also be seen in reports sent from Cairo by American diplomats, which were published by WikiLeaks.
US to redirect millions of dollars in military aid to Taiwan – WSJ
Although the Muslim Brotherhood, having seized power from Mubarak, held on to it for only a year, this was a bitter lesson for the Egyptian elites that they are unlikely to ever forget. After the Egyptian Army ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in the summer of 2013, US-Egyptian relations deteriorated even further. This became apparent when President Barack Obama canceled the then-upcoming iteration of the biannual Exercise Bright Star, which is the foundation of military cooperation between Washington and Cairo. It was also in 2013 that the US imposed sanctions on supplying military aid to Egypt, which further marred relations between the two countries.
However, while Obama’s policies led to a decline in relations with Egypt, as well as almost all the other countries in the region, Trump, who replaced him, took concrete steps to change the situation a month after his inauguration on January 20, 2017. On April 3, Sisi paid his first official visit to the White House. This was not his first meeting with Trump, as they had met once before on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Many experts who followed the meeting in the Oval Office stressed that both leaders took the security issue seriously and hated political Islamism. This was the beginning of a reset period for relations between the two countries. But Trump is gone, Biden has come, and it seems that the crisis in relations is growing again.
Russia is the main obstacle
While relations with the US were worsening under Sisi, Egypt’s interactions with Moscow took a rapid upturn. In fact, the foundation was laid for military-technical cooperation. Billion-dollar contracts for military supplies began to be agreed upon. This included Ka-52 Alligator multi-purpose attack helicopters, which have become the most powerful combat helicopters in Africa, according to Military Watch. The publication also stressed that this deal was the result of the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West.
Egypt seeking large-scale investment from Russia – official
Russian-Egyptian joint military exercises have been held more than once since 2015. And despite a short period of warming in US-Egyptian relations, Russia has become a special partner for Egypt – a stable and predictable one, unlike the US.
The positions of Moscow and Cairo on many regional problems have converged 100%, be it with respect to Palestine, Syria, or Libya. A common history of cooperation also plays a part in this. Soviet-Egyptian relations enjoyed their heyday in the 1950s and 60s, when thousands of specialists from the USSR boosted Egyptian industry. It was during this period that the country’s largest enterprises were built, including the Aswan hydroelectric plant, with the help of engineer Nikolay Malyshev, and the Helwan Metallurgical Plant, which was decommissioned just a couple of years ago.
In addition, many generations of Egyptian elites studied at Soviet universities, including the aforementioned Mubarak.
Egyptians fought with Soviet weapons for many decades, studied Soviet literature, and enjoyed the fruits of Soviet engineering. Egypt is the largest importer of Russian grain.
All this cannot be ignored by Egypt’s current leadership when building a dialogue with Moscow and making key decisions. These circumstances cannot be forgotten under even very strong pressure from the US. Washington, however, is not giving up.
Egypt has drawn conclusions
Of course, the constant pressure and blackmail the American government resorts to could not but provoke a response. So, after the launch of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, the Americans repeatedly tried to persuade the Egyptians to fully participate in the anti-Russian campaign. That is, to supply weapons to Kiev and join the economic sanctions against Moscow. Egypt flatly refused.
In August 2023, the WSJ reported that US officials, including Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin, repeatedly called on Egypt to begin supplying arms to Ukraine and join the collective effort to assist the Ukrainian government in overcoming its ammunition shortage. The weapons required included artillery shells, anti-tank missiles, air defense systems, and small arms. Trying to maintain a balance in its relations with Russia, Cairo did not respond to the Americans’ demands. The WSJ emphasizes that, despite Egypt’s partnership with the US and America’s annual military assistance of $1.3 billion, Cairo is in no hurry to quarrel with Moscow, as it depends on Russian grain.
A difficult choice for Egypt
Although the current decision to deprive Egypt of part of its American military support is nothing new, this time it has been caused not only, and not so much, by Cairo’s “inability to make progress in the area of human rights,” as it is by its unwillingness to actively support the Ukrainian army.
Egyptian political scientist Amr Eldiib said that US pressure on the Egyptian government has always been associated with attempts to sever Egyptian-Russian ties.
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“It was clear that our country’s entry into BRICS would provoke an immediate response from America. And withholding $85 million is not a final measure. The Americans can withhold much larger amounts.”
The expert notes that the United States is also putting pressure on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to not provide Egypt with new tranches of loans until it begins helping Ukraine and publicly speaks out against Russia.
“Egypt and its leadership will certainly face a very difficult choice. The Egyptian economy, as well as most of the Egyptian army’s weapons, are American. In addition, the country is very economically dependent on the West. Since there are difficulties with Russian investments, the chances of forcing Egypt’s leadership to slow its development of relations with Moscow are increasing. The only thing that can support Russian-Egyptian cooperation is an increase in Russian investment in the Egyptian economy. Thus, the El-Dabaa nuclear project is in danger of being halted at the drop of a hat.
“Strategic relations between Cairo and Moscow will not be permitted to develop, especially given the economic and social situation in Egypt at this stage. Therefore, it’s necessary to act more decisively,” Eldiib said.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.