Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Behind the cuts

Cairo is determined to correct what it terms “a temporary hiccup in communications” with Washington, writes Dina Ezzat

 

Behind the cuts
Behind the cuts

Last week saw the resumption of the joint Egypt-US Bright Star military manoeuvres. Initiated in the 1980s, in the wake of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, as part of what was then seen as a firm alliance between Egypt and the US, Bright Star expanded over the years into a multi-national exercise bringing together Egyptian and American forces and troops from states allied with the US.

The exercises, scheduled to take place every two years, were last held in October 2009. Last week’s resumption, though loudly trumpeted, saw only 200 US troops taking part.

Yet even on this limited scale Cairo was pleased the manoeuvres were taking place. “It sends a signal of sorts for sure; so yes, they are not what they used to be but at least they took place and this reveals developments in the profile of Egyptian-American relations that cannot be overlooked,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

He was speaking on Monday as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was receiving General Joseph Votel, chief of US Central Command. The meeting took place at the presidential palace.

According to the official statement issued by Presidential Spokesman Alaa Youssef, the meeting, which was attended by Egypt’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazi and the charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Cairo Thomas H. Goldberger, reviewed ways to consolidate bilateral ties, especially military cooperation.

Issued hours before the announcement of a terror attack in Sinai that left 18 police officers and soldiers dead, Youssef’s statement on Monday underlined the commitments Al-Sisi made to continue the war on terror.

The meeting between Al-Sisi and Votel took place after the US announced a cut of $100 million in economic aid and the withholding of $200 million in military aid to Egypt. Yet, according to the diplomat, the cuts were not high on the agenda of the talks between Al-Sisi and Votel — or “not directly anyway”.

“They spoke about the need to upgrade military cooperation and the minister of defence said something about the current profile of military cooperation and the cuts were touched upon but not in any detailed way. This is the way things usually are in presidential meetings,” he said. 

Last Thursday — two days after Washington announced its decision to cut close to $100 million in economic aid and withhold twice that amount in military financing, ostensibly in response to Egypt’s human rights record — US President Donald Trump called Al-Sisi to reassure him that Egypt enjoyed Washington’s continued support in its battle against terrorism.

According to the diplomat, “the US president has a pattern of praising Egypt for what it is doing in the war on terror but in this call he had something more to say, especially that the call came hours after the US announced the aid cut.”

Officials in Cairo had hoped Trump’s election would end Washington’s habit of raising human rights and the democracy file in Egyptian-US relations. The decision to cut aid suggested otherwise, to official dismay if not quite surprise.

A well-informed government official said Cairo had been notified that the president’s ratification of the controversial NGO law could prompt a reaction from the US administration “given the increasing pressure it faces from different quarters in Washington to send a clear message to Egypt” that cooperation between Cairo and Washington on regional files, including Syria and Palestine, could not fully exempt Cairo from hostile remarks on its human rights and civil liberties record. 

According to the same official, Trump’s decision to send Cairo a clear message was not just a result of perceived human rights failings. “It is also about North Korea, as has been clearly indicated in American press coverage of the cuts.”

American commentators spent much of the last week of August giving vent to Washington’s frustration over ongoing cooperation between Cairo and Pyongyang. According to Cairo-based Western diplomats this cooperation includes diplomatic, political and security elements.

Egypt, says the government source, has been trying to accommodate Washington concerns about the relationship. On Tuesday Egypt’s Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi announced Egypt has cut military ties with North Korea. According to the Associated Press, Sobhi during a visit to Seoul, told his counterpart Song Young-moo that Egypt has “already severed all military ties with North Korea”.

Cairo’s plan, said the official, is to “try and remind the Americans of the valuable role Egypt is playing in keeping the region stable through the diplomatic and intelligence work it undertakes in hotspots such as Libya, Syria and elsewhere”.

Senior Egyptian officials say the decision to cut the economic and military aid and to downgrade troop numbers for the resumption of the Bright Star exercises is a result of the continuing influence in Washington of “highly unsympathetic staff at the US State Department who are clinging on to the diplomatic doctrines of the administration of former US president Barack Obama”. According to these officials, hangover staffers at the State Department continue to press the Obama era view opposed to the political changes that occurred in Egypt with the 2013 ouster of Mohamed Morsi.

Cairo-based Western diplomats say the official view in Egypt that the recent decision on the part of the US is somehow a result of a PR failure on the part of Cairo is wide of the mark.

According to one European diplomat recently returned from Washington, “the fact of the matter is that there is a growing concern in many quarters across Washington about the choices Cairo is making in terms of its international relations and, if anything more so, about the very harsh restrictions being placed on freedoms and on civil society.” 

Since the US announced the cut in aid both Human Rights Watch and the UN commissioner on human rights have issued pointed criticisms of Egypt’s human rights record. Cairo responded by saying the criticisms were ill-informed, a deliberate attempt to tarnish the image of the country and ignored the fact that Egypt has been the victim of wide-ranging terror campaign in Sinai for the last three years.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since April this year.  

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