Following a long established rapport, Egypt-US relations have increasingly come under the spotlight in the post-revolution period. Ahram Online gains further insight in an exclusive interview with US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson.
Hidden behind high concrete walls in Cairo’s upscale Garden City district, individuals – after getting security clearance – are met with patriotic symbols and historic memorabilia which fill the embassy corridors. Black and white photos of Egypt’s late president’s catch the eye, along with an iconic photo of jazz legend Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet next to the pyramids and sphinx.
Patterson, who has been in the post for two years, remained welcoming throughout the interview, for which she was accompanied by two embassy press officials. Before coming to Egypt, Patterson served as ambassador to Pakistan (2007-2010), ambassador to Colombia (2000-2003) and ambassador to El Salvador (1997-2000).
On the economy, the IMF loan and US aid
Ahram Online: How is the US supporting Egypt in terms of assistance? What are the US's priorities in post-revolution Egypt?
Ambassador Patterson:The military assistance is $1.2 billion a year. A substantial amount of assistance has been provided post-revolution. $250 million was released following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with [President Mohamed] Morsi on 3 March. More money will be released as pledged if the IMF loan is passed, on top of Obama’s promise last year of $1 billion in US assistance – provided that an agreement is reached concerning the loan.
In addition, assistance will be provided to Sinai and elsewhere. However, the court case against American NGOs has delayed humanitarian initiatives; the trial was recessed and is now set for 4 June.
It is important to bear in mind that the IMF loan will ensure much needed reform and aid packages from other institutions, such as the World Bank and African Development Bank, among others. In essence, it will create a greater equilibrium by ensuring that [Egyptian state] subsidies no longer benefit the rich so as to provide greater assistance to the poor.
AO: Is the IMF loan likely to enforce real democratic reform or will it function as a short-term band-aid with no real democratic impact?
AP: If there is, particularly, subsidy reform on energy sources, the country will simply eat through extra cash. The economy needs to be put on a sustainable track to ensure real democratic reform guaranteed by the IMF loan, unlike regional aid which will function as a temporary band-aid.
Regional financing is less likely to implement the necessary policies required for democracy at the socio-economic level and will not attract other viable aid packages from international institutions, such as the World Bank. Moreover, the IMF has become more sensitive to social issues; a reform programme needs to go hand in hand with the social safety net for the poor. The critical issue currently at hand concerns tax and subsidy reform, which the IMF seeks to address.
AO: How will domestic policies and regional stability be affected by loans and aid packages currently being offered by Turkey, Russia, Libya and Qatar, which pledged a $3 billion unconditional loan?
AP: In terms of financial aid and investments from regional sources, of course, we are glad to see Egypt receive money from a variety of parties; bearing in mind this will by default imply some external measure of influence.
Qatar is a big regional player; the world's largest supplier of Liquified Natual Gas (LNG), a sovereign wealth fund with over $100 billion in assets and a large proportion of high-net worth individuals, which gives them a huge amount of clout as a regional player. Qatar’s implicit interest in Egypt has been most evident since the revolution; this may secure the Gulf country a certain degree of influence in Egypt.
AO: What is the US policy on elections before the IMF loan is passed? Would the US be more comfortable with another round of elections before any decision is taken on the loan?
AP: We think the IMF agreement needs to be concluded as soon as possible. There is a greater chance democracy will succeed with economic recovery. It is very hard for democracy to succeed if the economy is in bad shape. It is also fundamental to remember that at the start of the revolution, Egyptians' expectations were unrealistic, particularly in terms of financial expectations; it is hard for anyone to meet such demands.
AO: What measures need to be taken to improve investment confidence in Egypt?
AP: We have a huge number of US corporations doing very well here, many of which view Egypt as a great place to invest. Plans to scale back investments are often linked to political stability, when investors see unrest on TV, they are deterred. The volatility of the courts and privatisation plans are additional factors.
Long-term investment has a lot has to do with predictability; during such upheaval it is very hard to forecast. Another issue which is impacting investments relates to labour strikes – what we call in the US ‘wild-cat strikes,’ though American companies in Egypt seem to be less affected than others.
On Egyptian post-revolution politics
AO: What is your stance on the fairness and transparency of Egypt's electoral process since the fall of Mubarak?
AP: The honesty and integrity of the elections post-revolution is not in question; though there were evident procedural problems with the constitutional referendum. For the upcoming parliamentary elections, we hope to sponsor a large observer mission from the Carter Centre called Democracy International. Both international and domestic electoral observation is important; however, the local population’s input remains paramount due to cultural understanding.
AO: What is your stance on the recent reshuffle of nine Egyptian government ministers?
AP: There is a high degree of political polarisation, and thus a need for more dialogue and compromise. The Egyptian state needs technocrats and competent people. I doubt the reshuffle will satisfy the opposition. Egyptians need to work this out themselves.
AO: How has the US been focusing on improving the socio-economic conditions of Egyptians in terms of education, vocational training, creating business opportunities, and reducing sectarian tensions?
AP: We have initiated entrepreneurship programmes in the Smart Village New Cairo, we work with NGOs that instigate initiatives such as the Angel Investors and Mentors Programme, promoting entrepreneurship and commercial activities. We also plan to announce a big educational initiative for women and found science, technology and math departments in high schools.
There are also scholarships available for the less fortunate, such as the Lotus scholarship and English-speaking programme, in addition to vocational training for agro-business and tourism.
In terms of sectarian violence, we sponsor interfaith dialogue. Muslim clerics are often sponsored to come from the US to facilitate such dialogues. The rise in sectarian violence is a very worrisome issue, in this instance, the law itself is not the concern – Islamic vigilantes are the problem.
On Egypt-US relations post-revolution
AO: An embassy source said that the biggest evidence of US non-support of the Muslim Brotherhood is that Obama has never met President Morsi – and diplomacy is what you don't see, not what you see.
AP: I would not draw any conclusions from that. Obama has talked to Morsi on the phone a number of times; he is a very busy man. Kerry visited recently in March, and Clinton came within the first month of Morsi’s inauguration.
AO: How is the US government dealing with Egypt's new Islamist government? Is it awkward today to be liaisoning with a group whose leaders were harassed and imprisoned under the former US-backed regime?
AP: The fact is they ran in a legitimate election and won. In retrospect, it was not just the Muslim Brotherhood who were jailed under the emergency law. The law was widely abused; many personalities unaligned from the Muslim Brotherhood – such as Saad Eddin [Ibrahim] and Ayman Nour – were jailed for challenging the regime.
Of course it is challenging to be dealing with any new government. However, at the state institutional level, we are for instance still liaising with the same military and civil service personnel, and thus have retained the same long-established relations.
AO: Does the US approve of President Morsi's and the Muslim Brotherhood's performance to date?
AP: The performance from the economic perspective leaves a lot to be desired, illustrated by the country’s [foreign currency] reserve levels. Hopefully, with aid and political stability, the economic situation will improve.
AO: Is the US concerned by the possible spread of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in the region?
AP: Every country is unique. It shouldn't surprise us that the Muslim Brotherhood did well here given its grassroots structure and extremely pious population, as is the case with other countries in the region.
AO: What is the US perception of the Salafist Nour Party and its policies?
AP: The Nour Party won 25 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections in 2012. As Americans, we try to collaborate with all legitimate parties.
AO: What kind of electoral performance are you expecting to see from Egypt's liberal and secular parties?
AP: They are all legitimate actors on the political scene. We meet with the opposition, too. Our job is to keep contact with all forces, as we do not know who will come out on top.
AO: Where does the US stand on current events in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula? Does the US support the notion of giving land in Sinai to the Palestinians in order to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute?
AP: Sinai is sovereign territory for Egypt; there is no question about it, although I do think a reinvigorated peace process is necessary. We are now working on a number of projects in Sinai to help develop the north, which includes fish-farming, developing a commercial market and Bedouin water initiatives.
On the Syria crisis
AO: From Washington's perspective, how large of a role should Egypt have regarding events in Syria?
AP: [President] Morsi has a peace plan, which we have been briefed about; it is a very complex matter for which there is no good answer.
AO: If the US intervenes in Syria, how would it affect Egypt?
AP: The US has no intention to put ground troops in Syria or station troops [for deployment in Syria] here in Egypt.
AO: Does the US consider the Syrian refugee situation in Egypt a serious humanitarian concern?
AP: Not yet, but it has prospects to be; we are in close contact with [UN refugee agency] UNHCR in this regard. Some of the Syrians that have come to Egypt were quite prosperous, but sooner or later their personal funds will deplete and at this point humanitarian assistance will be imperative for most. Syrians are fortunate to have been made to feel very welcome by Egyptians.
On human rights
AO: According to US-based Human Rights Watch, rights violations have risen considerably since Mubarak's ouster. How is the US helping address the issue?
AP: We try and speak out about Egypt's international treaties, such as the UN covenant on civil and political rights. We do not agree with claims that human rights violations are worse than ever under the new regime.
It cannot be ignored that freedom of expression has improved in a number of ways under the new regime, exemplified by the media and the freedom to talk openly and publicly chastise political figures. Look at the press, or any of the political talk shows on TV: Egyptians did not have such freedoms under Mubarak.
In relation to the rise in sexual assault after the revolution, the minister of interior seems eager to address this problem and has agreed to instigate a training programme that will train police men and women how to investigate sexual assault cases. This programme will involve police officers travelling to the US for training and close alignment with female NGOs.
It is important to take into consideration, however, that since the revolution, people are less scared and more willing to report sexual abuses; hence the rise in reporting. That does not necessarily imply that the actual figures have increased, but that perhaps reporting has risen as victims are more confident and prepared to report violations.
I bet there will be an explosion in the number of sexual assault cases reported in the near future. All things considered, clearly, substantial progress still needs to be made.
AO: In the past, prisoner-rendition policies were applied involving the US and Egypt. Are such practices still underway?
AP: No, rendition policies are not practiced.
On US immigration policies
AO: Has the number of Egyptians seeking US visas – or political asylum – increased since the revolution?
AP: Yes, the numbers have increased. I do not have the statistics, but they are nothing like the numbers that the press suggests. There has been a rise in visa applications, which I would relate to economic reasons.
I cannot comment in regards to the number of Copts who have immigrated to the US since the revolution, as application procedures do not incorporate religion. Yet we suspect that the number of Copts has increased, as well as asylum applications.
Markedly Egypt is the biggest visa lottery applicant; a lot of Egyptians want to immigrate for economic purposes.
A final reflection
AO: Are you enjoying your posting in Egypt?
AP: It is very interesting and exciting to be here; there is so much to see and to appreciate about the culture and history. I am always encouraging the staff to explore Egypt's history. On top of that, Egyptians are fun people.