Thursday,24 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Thursday,24 May, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

‏International arm-twisting

‏Pressures are growing on Cairo to reconsider both foreign and domestic policy, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

International arm-twisting
International arm-twisting

In a meeting with Chief of US Central Command General Joseph Votel on Monday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed the importance of military relations between Egypt and the United States. “These relations represent the axis of the current cooperation between our two countries,” said Al-Sisi.

Al-Sisi’s statement came on the eve of the launch of the Egyptian-American joint military exercises Bright Star 2017, conducted between 10 and 20 September at the Mohamed Naguib military base west of Alexandria.

The military manoeuvres — held every two years from 1981-2009 — were halted by former US president Barack Obama a year after he came into office. In 2013 Obama decided to cancel them altogether in response to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.

On Monday, Al-Sisi told a delegation from the American National Council of Churches (NCC) that he is keen to receive delegations representing all sectors of American society in order to “consolidate communication and build bridges of understanding between Egypt and the US”.

Political analysts say Al-Sisi’s statements coincide with a period in which Egyptian-American relations appear to have soured. On 23 August Egypt expressed “regret” at a sudden US decision to withhold $195 million in military aid and $96 million in economic aid. A statement by the Foreign Ministry said “the US decision reflects a misjudgment about the nature of strategic relations which have bound the two countries for decades.”

In a phone call with Al-Sisi on 25 August US President Donald Trump said he is keen to remove all obstacles in the path of relations with Egypt. Yet on 7 September the US reported Congress is considering further cuts in economic and military aid to Egypt in 2018. Some US reports say Washington decided to reconsider its relationship with Cairo in the light of what Congress members say are “shortcomings” in Egypt’s human rights record.

In Cairo political analysts do not expect US-Egyptian relations to be back to normal any time soon.

“President Al-Sisi’s meetings this week with American delegations might contain short-term damage but in the long run relations between the two countries will further deteriorate,” says Al-Ahram political analyst Hala Mustafa.

“The latest developments seem to confirm that the US is continuing to use economic and military assistance to pressure states to line up Washington’s policies.”

When Trump became president in January Cairo hoped the US-American strategic relationship was firmly back on track. “After these cuts it seems that Trump will not be that different to Obama and other US presidents. Whether Republicans or Democrats, they have used US aid as a political pressure tool,” says Mustafa.

Political analysts in Cairo note that the aid cuts were followed by a critical report issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report alleged that “torture has become a systematic practice in Egyptian prisons”. HRW has long pressured US Congress members to suspend — or completely cut — economic and military aid to Egypt in response to “concerns about Cairo’s human rights record”.

In a meeting held by parliament’s Human Rights Committee on Sunday, public figures and MPs denounced HRW’s report. Diaa Rashwan, head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the report chimed with American Congress members who “want to exert pressure on President Al-Sisi to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to be re-integrated into the political process”.

Dahlia Ziada, a human rights activist, said there is mounting evidence HRW receives funding from Qatar and some Islamist movements. “Remember that HRW, along with liberal American media and some Congress members, pressured US President Donald Trump not to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation,” says Ziada.

Al-Ahram political analyst Hassan Abu Taleb argues it is no coincidence Washington’s newly aggressive policy comes after President Al-Sisi held successful meetings last week in China with leaders at the BRICS summit.  Following a meeting with Russian President Valdimir Putin on 4 September Al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s 2015 contract with Russia to build a nuclear power station at Dabaa, west of Alexandria, had been finalised and Putin had accepted an invitation to attend a ceremony to mark the laying of the foundations. Putin later promised that “direct flights between Russia and Egypt, which were suspended in November 2015, could be back very soon.”

“It seems that Cairo and Moscow growing closer has left some US politicians nervous. They decided to use the aid cuts to express their dissatisfaction with Al-Sisi’s new policies,” says Abu Taleb.

Some US media outlets also say Washington is upset over Egypt’s ties with North Korea.

“It is clear that Washington’s aggressive policies towards Egypt will continue for some time,” says Abu Taleb. “Al-Sisi’s cool reactions to these provocative policies could help absorb the tension but only for a limited time. In the long run it will be difficult to keep relations intact as long as Al-Sisi keeps looking to the east and strengthens ties with Russia and China.”

In a visit to Seoul on Tuesday Egypt’s defence minister made the surprise announcement that Cairo has cut all military ties with North Korea.

The souring of relations with the US comes as Egypt is preparing for presidential elections next year. Al-Sisi has not yet clearly announced his intention to stand. Abu Taleb believes “he will only announce his decision to contest the elections when the National Electoral Commission [NEC] opens the door of registration.”

“This is what Al-Sisi did in 2014, repeating many times he would stand only if the people asked him to do so.”

“As the poll draws closer President Al-Sisi’s policies of the last four years will be placed under the spotlight,” says Abu Taleb.

Last week a group of political activists announced a campaign to seek guarantees that the elections will be fair and transparent. The Solidarity Front for Change, led by political activists Mamdouh Hamza, Khaled Ali and Shady Al-Ghazali Harb, said on 9 September that it would promote “democratic change and competitive election next year”. The front said it hoped to mobilise the opposition around a single presidential candidate and that “all candidates should enter the election on an equal footing in terms of campaigning and funding.”

Former foreign minister Amr Moussa said in a recent television interview that he does not intend to stand in the presidential poll. “But I expect that some public figures may announce their decision to compete in the coming months. What is important,” said Moussa, “is that it is a competitive election and not a single candidate referendum.”

In a television interview on 10 September Hamdeen Sabahi also ruled himself out as a candidate. He told ONTV that the problem is that although “President Al-Sisi has lost much of his popularity he is seen as the only option available right now.”

Supporters of Mubarak’s last prime minister and former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik launched a campaign this week that seeks to encourage him to stand.

Shafik, who has been living in the United Arab Emirates since 2012, has not announced whether he will stand. Sources close to Shafik told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Monday that “if Shafik did decide to run he would be a serious rival to Al-Sisi.”

“As the poll approaches President Al-Sisi will face growing internal and external pressures,” says Abu Taleb.

“There will be much talk about democracy, respect of human rights and economic policies which have pushed millions of Egyptians below the poverty line. We will have to wait and see how successful or not President Al-Sisi will be in containing this pressure.”

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