Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Washington’s puzzling policy

With US President Donald Trump still developing his strategic vision for the Middle East, little can be taken for granted on US relations with Egypt, writes Ezzat Ibrahim

In a cartoon that appeared in the New York Times before the UN General Assembly in September, US President Donald Trump is depicted as splitting the international body into two, ripping the words “United” and “Nations” apart from unity and consensus.

The fact that such a satirical cartoon appeared on the front page of this international paper is consistent with its general outlook on the Trump era and probably reflects the editorial board’s doubts about the US ability to work with the UN during his presidency. 

Those doubts are not without good grounds. Trump has attacked the international organisation fiercely before, and in his address to the General Assembly he did so again. He spoke of the UN as an organisation that was “mired in bureaucracy” and in need of reform. He again repeated his “America First” slogan.

In the West, Trump’s speech was seen as a powerful sign of the lack of global leadership in the world today. Former NATO secretary-general Javier Solana warned of a “global leadership vacuum” and noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “has signalled that he might be ready to fill the leadership vacuum created by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach.”

However, he added that in order to do so China would have to vastly increase its soft power and cultivate alliances and partnerships, things that might conflict with Chinese nationalism and insularism. 

In Washington, some think tanks hailed Trump’s UN address as one of the best speeches he had ever made before US and global audiences. The American Enterprise Institute cited the observations of Elliott Abrams, a well-known conservative pundit and former official in the Bush administration, who said that the Trump speech featured a “striking absence” of the staples of American presidential foreign policy rhetoric about the US role in spreading democracy and human rights. Instead, Trump had prioritised national sovereignty and the nation-state, Abrams said. 

It is necessary to remind ourselves of this background in order to gain a clearer understanding of the context of the events in New York. For in fact, Trump did not depart from the outlook that has governed US foreign policy for decades. He cast himself as the leader of the free world, albeit in a new style, having realised that isolationist notions, popular in ultra-conservative circles in the US, are no longer suited to dealing with an international community in which rising powers have set their sights on the driver’s seat. 

Trump understands that the US loses when it talks of reducing its relations with the outside world and accordingly that pragmatic ideas have greater prevalence in today’s world. Rationalism and pragmatism were his catchwords for building bridges to other powers in order to solve the world’s major problems. 

True, he departed from this logic in his comments on North Korea, which he threatened to “totally destroy”. But then he would never pass up an opportunity to flex his muscles before the gallery whether at home or abroad.

Experts in Washington have urged Trump to take his time before setting his administration’s priorities for the Middle East, and they have cautioned him against meddling in the domestic affairs of the region’s countries, pointing to his predecessors’ failure to forge coherent policies for it. In a report issued last week, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) observed that both Trump’s regional supporters and his opponents share the view that Trump has many policies on the Middle East, but no tangible strategic vision and that this will further complicate the question of how best to work with the US.

With this in mind, the meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Trump on the fringes of the General Assembly meeting in New York was governed by various considerations. Not least was the kerfuffle that arose prior to the meeting over the question of US aid to Egypt and the US Senate appropriations committee request for a $300 million reduction in this in 2018, the reason for which was soon explained in a leaked State Department memorandum to the Senate pertaining to human rights and civic freedoms in Egypt. 

That leak, which occurred only a few hours before the two presidents’ meeting, was a manifestation of the tensions between the White House, on the one hand, and the State Department and Congress, on the other. Some congressional circles believe that the State Department’s power in the conduct of foreign relations has weakened since Trump came to office. This has prompted two prominent senators – Patrick Leahy, the most prominent Democrat on the appropriations committee, and the long-serving Republican Lindsey Graham – to join forces with Senator John McCain in a call to back organisations that promote democracy abroad. 

McCain, who chairs the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, maintains that these organisations are indispensable and achieved positive results during the Cold War era and afterwards.

Undoubtedly, there were communications between Cairo and Washington in order to narrow the gap between the two capitals triggered by the news of the State Department leak. But there still remains a strong current in Washington that prioritises democracy and human rights in Egypt, often inspired by activists who played important roles in the events in Egypt during the periods before and after the 25 January Revolution. 

People from this current are currently in Washington campaigning to open up the public sphere in Egypt by lobbying Congress to use the $1.3 billion in US aid as a means to pressure the White House and the State Department into putting pressure on Egypt. The fact that numerous US-based organisations have benefited from the sums earmarked for aid to civil society and rights organisations in Egypt has also worked to keep the controversy in Washington alive.

Meanwhile, another State Department document has surfaced, expressing concerns that the US is unable to evaluate Egypt’s military operations in Sinai which according to the document utilise US aid. The document claims that Egyptian officials have given “limited access” to US officials, only allowing them to undertake tours of areas in Sinai near the Suez Canal.

However, in spite of the above bilateral relations between Egypt and the US appear to be progressing well. This was borne out in other meetings that took place in New York, perhaps the most important of which was one with members of the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest association of major US companies. The chamber has given favourable views on economic developments in Egypt in recent years, and it appreciates the fiscal and economic reforms the Egyptian government has instituted. 

The positive effects of these measures have been substantiated by reports from international organisations such as the IMF and major international credit-ratings agencies. The most recent of these was the latest Moody’s report, which even though it kept Egypt’s rating at B3 held that positive factors such as the floating of the Egyptian pound and investment in the local economy had offset negative ones such as a growing trade deficit in respect to GDP.

The question of how to deal with the US Congress remains one that requires more focus. Congressmen in the US are under the influence of a powerful media and propaganda machine. Some of them frame US-Egyptian relations solely as human rights and democracy questions and therefore prioritise amending the NGO law in Egypt and other concerns related to civic freedoms. As some Egyptian affairs specialists in the US pointed out to President Al-Sisi during his visit to New York, there are also other important issues that Egypt needs to address. 

The most important concerns, reports of mounting restrictions on civic freedoms in Egypt. As the specialists have noted, certain parties have been funding anti-Egyptian propaganda in Washington for more than four years. Unfortunately, not all the many Egyptian delegations that have visited the US capital have been convincing. Some have even produced adverse reactions due to their poor negotiating skills. 

Yes, strategic and military relations are indispensable with the US, and yes, it is possible to contain the current wave of anti-Egyptian attitudes with understandings on certain issues. Yes, there are people in the US who appreciate Egypt’s weight in the strategic balance of the Middle East. But such considerations do not do away with the question of how to deal with a fluctuating political environment in Washington in which the current president is being put through numerous tests and forced to make tough choices and where nothing can be taken for granted.

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