By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was so eager to see the back of Barack Obama that he boasted of being the first foreign leader to congratulate Donald Trump on his surprise victory in November.
A year later, the change of the guard has produced mixed results for Cairo.
On a personal level, the relationship between the country’s leaders is incomparably better. Trump and Sisi share an inclination for dealing with Islamist terrorism with a heavy hand, and Egypt’s dismal human rights record has ceased to be a source of friction between Cairo and the White House.
“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi,” Trump said when the Egyptian leader visited him at the White House on April 3. “He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”
The warm meeting quickly paid dividends for both sides.
Weeks later, Cairo released imprisoned US NGO worker Aya Hijazi while the State Department added Egypt to a shortlist of countries that it thinks should continue getting US military assistance for free (Congress doesn’t want to turn the grants into loans for anyone). Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants, behind Israel, with $1.3 billion every year.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has decided to resume joint military exercise in September that Obama suspended in 2013 after the Egyptian army massacred protesters.
On other fronts, however, US policies have hardly budged.
One of Egypt’s top priorities, getting the United States to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, remains in interagency limbo amid lingering concerns that doing so would destabilize a host of US allies. And Cairo has so far had no luck reversing Obama’s decision to discontinue cash flow financing, which for decades has allowed Egypt to use its FMF grants to purchase US weapons on credit, starting with the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
To reverse those trends, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington shelled out $1.75 million last year for the services of the Glover Park Group, its lowest lobbying spending since the 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. And since January, the country’s notorious intelligence service, the mukhabarat, has gotten into the lobbying game with a pair of contracts collectively worth $1.8 million a year.
"The motivation,” a former senior official under the Barack Obama administration told Al-Monitor, was that the General Intelligence Services were “distressed by the Egyptian image in the United States so they went out and hired [two firms] and thought they could do better than the embassy. And as far as I know, they haven’t really done better than the embassy […] but the Egyptian intelligence service is sort of its own master.”
The official pointed out that, although the initial contracts were inked just days after Trump’s inauguration, they were negotiated when Obama was still in charge. Egypt can also count on reliable support from the Gulf states and pro-Israel groups, due to close intelligence cooperation between Egypt and those countries.
Egypt and Israel “have a very strong relationship between the military and intelligence services, but ultimately it comes down to the stability of Egypt and particularly in the Sinai Peninsula and pressure against Hamas,” the former senior official said. “They’re willing to lobby for Egyptian assistance, mostly military.”
Congress, however, remains a thorn in Cairo’s side.
The US Senate in particular has long tried to condition US aid to progress on human rights, with little success. Shortly before Sisi’s April visit, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., introduced a bipartisan resolution that threatens to re-evaluate foreign assistance to Egypt unless it takes steps to improve its human rights record. Senate appropriators followed through in September by voting to slash US military assistance by $300 million in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.
The lower chamber has been far less critical.
House appropriators in July approved a foreign aid spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that not only preserves the $1.3 billion in annual military aid but also eliminates previous years' provision tying 15% of that package to progress on democracy and human rights. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used that provision to withhold $195 million in military assistance in August, while reprogramming another $95.7 million in economic and security aid to other countries deemed more deserving.
"We remain concerned about Egypt’s lack of progress in key areas, including human rights and the new NGO law," a source with knowledge of the issue told Reuters.
Human rights advocates argue this is the perfect time to revise the US military aid package because for the first time in years the United States has enough money set aside for Egypt to pay for its past weapons purchases.
Egypt has fared less well with its economic aid budget, but seems largely unfazed.
The State Department has proposed slashing economic and development assistance from $113 million to $75 million as part of its across-the-broad cuts (the Senate bill appropriates $75 million, the House version twice as much). The trend started under the Obama administration, which every year decreased economic aid from a high of $250 million in fiscal year 2012 amid difficulties in spending it on the ground.
“[Egypt is] certainly a lot less concerned about it,” the former senior official told Al-Monitor. “Because first of all what really matters to the military — who’s in charge — is the military assistance and they make money out of these enormous coproduction activities that we make there.”
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