Egypt May Look to Russia To Counter US Aid Reduction

In response to the US reducing its annual military aid to Egypt, the latter may resort to other weapons suppliers, such as Russia, and reduce US prerogatives in the Suez Canal.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry says goodbye to staff and security in Cairo, March 3, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin.

Topics covered

weapons exports, us aid, military aid, egypt, camp david accords

Oct 14, 2013

Yesterday [Oct. 10], the US administration sought to reassure the Egyptian government regarding the suspension of part of its annual military aid. The United States asserted that this decision will not affect the relations between the two countries, and that the aid will likely be reconsidered depending on performance regarding the “map for the future” — which is supposed to lead to electing a new Egyptian president by mid-2014. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government described the US move as “surprising,” especially as it comes at a time when Egypt is in the midst of fighting a “war on terror.”

On Oct. 9, the US administration announced that it will no longer give Egypt tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, missiles or assistance worth $260 million, but will maintain some other aid, thus confirming press reports in this regard.

The move raised several questions about the US goals. Some observers in the West described the move as an “unclear message,” given its potential impact on future relations between the United States and Egypt on the one hand, and on US interests in the Middle East on the other.

Observers believe that the US move would force Egypt to look for a new weapons supplier and put the United States at odds with its Gulf ally Saudi Arabia, which — since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi — has pledged to support Egypt in the transitional phase. Others said that the US decision may affect the security arrangements between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai.

Perhaps this is why US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to clarify that the decision to suspend aid did not mean severing relations with Egypt, and that Washington made the decision to ensure that the road map remains a key objective for the transitional government.

During his visit to Malaysia, Kerry said, “The interim government understands our commitment to the success of this government very well ... and by no means is this [decision] a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the [Egyptian] government.”

For his part, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a telephone conversation with the Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that Washington would continue to assist Egypt in the issues that serve the objectives of vital security for both sides, including the fight against terrorism, weapons proliferation and securing the borders and security in the Sinai.

Hagel stressed the importance of the relations between Washington and Cairo to strengthen security and stability not only for Egypt, but for the United States and the Middle East as well.

The two sides agreed to take the necessary steps for the aid to resume. They also agreed on the importance of Egypt’s commitment to the road map and of establishing a democratic system that includes all societal components.

Yesterday [Oct. 10], the Egyptian government criticized the US move, noting in a statement that it was “surprised by the issuance of this decision at this critical time when Egypt is fighting terrorism.”

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry considered the US decision to be wrong in terms of content and timing and that “it raises serious questions about the US readiness to provide stable strategic support for Egyptian security programs ... [Egypt] will work to ensure securing its vital needs continuously and systematically, especially in relation to its national security.”

The political forces in Egypt reacted angrily to the decision and asked the Egyptian government to take positions to counter that move.

Abdul Ghaffar Shukur, head of the People’s Alliance Party and a leading figure in the National Salvation Front, told As-Safir, “The decision was a kind of pressure on the Egyptian administration for the United States to balance its policy toward Egypt and the Middle East in general. ... If the aid was canceled outright, it would be a big burden on the Egyptian economy and Egypt will pay its price in hard currency.”

Shukur added, “The Egyptian administration must face the pressure with counterpressure. Egypt has a lot of cards that it can use to pressure the United States, including, for example, canceling the Camp David Accords — in return for which the aid was being given — using the Egyptian forces in the Sinai to protect Egypt’s interior security and abolishing giving priority to US warships in the Suez Canal, whereby the [US warships] would have to wait their turn [to cross the canal] like the ships of other countries. That would cost [the US] a lot of money. ... Egypt can also pressure [the US] by not allowing US warplanes to pass through Egyptian airspace and by canceling the Bright Star exercises, which allow US forces to engage in war games in the Middle East.”

The founder of the Tamarod movement, Mahmoud Badr, told As-Safir that the decision to reduce aid will not affect Egypt, especially because the Arabs are standing alongside Egypt and supporting the will of its people. He pointed out that Tamarod has been calling for ending the aid and has participated in the grassroots “Block the Aid” campaign.

Badr added, “We demand the Egyptian state to formally cancel the Camp David Accords. ... Most of Sisi’s popularity is due to him rejecting any foreign interference in Egyptian affairs, in particular his rejection of the US position toward the June 30 revolution and his emphasis on Egypt’s national independence. So we demand him to push toward that in a practical way.”

Egyptian military experts thought that the US decision will not affect the Egyptian army, and they expected Egypt to turn to military cooperation with Russia.

The head of the Center of the Republic for Political and Strategic Studies, Maj. Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yazal, told As-Safir, “The Egyptian army will not be affected by the decision because its current needs are sufficient. ... Any additional needs will be discussed in light of the emerging developments on the international political arena. ... Contacts have started with Russia and other countries since the United States decided to cut aid. These countries have offered to provide Egypt with weapons based on the needs of the army. They have sent official signals about that, so that they are ready once Egypt makes a decision.”

From that, Yazal believes that the cessation of aid to Egypt would be temporary because the United States is well-aware that it will be the biggest loser from that move.

Military expert Maj. Gen. Hamdi Bakhit told As-Safir that the Egyptian army will not be affected by the aid cut. He called Washington’s decision a mere threat to test how solid the Egyptian administration is in dealing with the United States. He stressed that the US administration needs military ties with Egypt.

“Egypt has good relations with Russia. And if ties with the United States are severed, there will be no problem regarding military cooperation with Moscow. And in that case, the United States will be the biggest loser because it gets important advantages in the region because of that aid. The most important [of those advantages] is safe passage in Egyptian air space and securing its vessels passing through the Suez Canal, and the consolidation of its relationship in the Middle East as a whole, not to mention that if there’s a Egyptian-Russian convergence the [US] will have to face another rival in the region,” he added.

Analysts and commentators in the West looked at the US decision’s regional effects. According to The Wall Street Journal, the US decision raises fears among Washington’s allies in the Middle East that the US commitment to Middle East security is no longer part of US global priorities.

The British newspaper Financial Times said, “The suspension of aid also risks damaging the US relationship with the Egyptian military, which has been one of the cornerstones of US strategy in the Middle East since the 1978 Camp David Accords. ... The possibility of a big cut in US aid to Egypt has also provoked anxiety in Israel, which worries that instability in the Sinai could boost the supply of rockets and arms to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.”

While the Israeli government has refused to directly comment on the US move, Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection Gilad Ardenne said in an interview with public radio that he was bothered by how such a decision could be interpreted in Egypt and by how it may affect relations with Israel. Former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said, “What’s strange in that move is that the Americans are effectively, albeit unintentionally, working against their own interests.”

Reuters news agency quoted an Israeli official as saying, “We are worried that if aid is stopped, the Egyptian people will press their government to abandon the treaty.” Another Israeli official was worried that Egypt may turn toward Russia.

About the repercussions of the US decision on the Egyptian economy, Fitch credit rating agency said that the effect seems to be limited on Egypt’s external financial situation, stressing that it doesn’t have much impact on the debt situation.

In complete disregard to the US decision, the Egyptian Stock Exchange jumped 2.2% yesterday, registering its highest level since September 2012. According to Reuters, that may indicate that many investors believe that Gulf aid — not Western aid — is the main factor influencing the Egyptian economy’s recovery.

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