Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A postponed confrontation?

The decision to suspend a portion of US military aid to Egypt has raised questions about future US-Egyptian relations, writes Ezzat Ibrahim in Washington

A   postponed  confrontation?
A postponed confrontation?
Al-Ahram Weekly

The recent developments in US-Egyptian relations cannot tell us a lot about the future course of the strategic partnership between the two countries, but what the Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi said last week might give a glimpse into how things are going and whether the US decision to suspend some military aid to Cairo will push the new government into mulling over its future relationship with Washington.

Fahmi’s comments attracted a lot of attention because of the frank language he used and his clear message to the Americans that Egypt will “find other sources of funding” after the US’s partial suspension of military aid. Indeed, the Egyptian minister sent a straightforward warning to the White House, saying that the US would be hurting itself if it cut off aid to Egypt.

“If your friends in the region, when they’re facing terrorism in particular, cannot depend on a continuous supply of equipment to deal with that terrorism, then you are obviously going to raise questions in the minds of those friends about your dependability,” Fahmi told a CNN interviewer. He also insisted on the impact of the US move on both sides, adding that it “will affect your interests as well as those of your friends, like Egypt.”

Last week, the US administration announced that it would withhold a significant portion of the $1.3 billion of annual military aid it gives to Egypt. In his response, Fahmi emphasised that the main issue for Egypt was not about pleasing the United States or pleasing the West in general, but was about moving towards a democratic system that would include all Egyptians. He described the transitional process now underway in the country by saying that “it’s not going to be easy; there will be ups and downs.”

The US decision to suspend a portion of its aid followed heated debates inside the US administration and Congress concerning the best way to respond to the dramatic changes in Cairo since the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi from power almost three months ago.

US law calls on the government to halt the sending of aid to countries where a democratic government has been deposed by a military coup, but the US has never officially said that the ousting of Morsi was a coup. Despite the American unease about the popular uprising against Morsi, the administration made concessions when it became obvious that the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt was impossible.

In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama conceded that Morsi was an elected ruler, but that he had governed undemocratically and pursued non-inclusive policies. The suspension of aid came days after the appearance of Obama at the United Nations and the warm reception of the Egyptian foreign minister in New York.

“Consistent with the law, we will only provide assistance to Egypt that could be provided regardless of whether the military coup restriction has been triggered,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “We will continue to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt in 2014 consistent with the approach we have outlined,” she said.

According to a report on the US Politicos website, “the United States is treating Egypt’s summer revolution as a coup, even if the White House won’t call it that.” And experts in Washington are trying to define the meaning of the US move to freeze aid to Cairo.

“Having failed to suspend aid right after the coup, despite threatening to do exactly that, the administration was left with little choice but to define its least worst option. With this partial suspension, they hope to make clear that there is some price (largely symbolic and perhaps temporary) for ignoring US preferences,” wrote Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“They hope to show that they won’t be overly influenced on Egypt policy by Gulf and Israeli lobbying for total aid resumption. And they hope to sustain a working relationship with the people who are running Egypt — an objective which has been perhaps the only consistent component of the US approach towards Egypt since the 2011 revolution,” she added.

Middle East insiders are concerned about the long-term approach in Washington towards Egypt, as the country is facing challenges about how to contain Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the future building of an inclusive democracy that would avoid a widespread confrontation with the Islamists. There have been concerns over these challenges on the relationship between the West and Political Islam across the Middle East and Arab world.

“There is very little discernible upside to the decision to suspend aid, but the current controversy reflects a deeper transformation underway that few like to talk about,” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said. “The strategic rationale for ties is four decades old. With the exception of Egypt-Israel peace, which remains of primary importance to Egyptians, Americans, and Israelis, the foundations of the relationship have weakened or disappeared, portending change.”

“Egypt and the United States are likely to diverge in the future for a variety of reasons — strategic, political, and even fatigue. So even if the administration’s decision to suspend aid was clumsy, and it is hard to figure out the upside, it was only a matter of time before it happened because Washington-Cairo ties are changing,” Cook said.

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