Shortly before the delegation’s meetings with senior US military, political and economic figures, the US House of Representatives National Security Subcommittee held a hearing on the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Egyptian delegation arrived in Washington to discuss bilateral relations in the midst of round-the-clock meetings, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs announced it would hold a hearing on Egypt and invited prominent critics of the Egyptian government to the session held on 24 July.
In what follows, Al-Ahram Weekly analyses what took place in the two hearings.
A high-profile Egyptian military delegation is currently in Washington, with the Military White Paper Delegation, led by MG Mohamed Elkeshky, assistant minister of defence for foreign relations, visiting the US capital from 16-26 July where it met separately with congressmen and congresswomen.
They included Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Congresswoman Lois Frankel, Congressman Austin Scott, Congressman Austin Scott, Congressman Brian Mast, Congressman Ed Royce, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, Congressman Louie Gohmert, Congressman Eliot Engel, Congressman Paul Cook, Senator John Boozman, Senator Ben Cardin, Congressman Hal Rogers, Congressman Doug Lamborn, Congressman Joe Wilson, Congresswoman Jody Hice, Congressman Steve Chabot, Congressman Brad Schneider, Congressman John Rutherford, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, Senator Bob Menendez and Senator Ron Johnson.
Egyptian delegation at London Center in Washington
The delegation also held meetings with senior officials from the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the National Security Council. Other meetings included experts from think tanks from across the spectrum in the capital and senior officials of the US Chamber of Commerce.
According to sources close to the meetings, the Egyptian delegation’s meetings “caused some anger among the anti-30 June Revolution camp in Washington and led to controversy and moves to counter the positive impact of the meetings”.
The White Paper Delegation visited Washington as part of the ongoing communication and consultation between Egypt and the United States to exchange views on various issues of common concern. The joint meetings also aimed to strengthen the framework of communication and coordination between the two sides in order to contribute to overcoming any difficulties.
For years, the meetings have helped both countries to advance their strategic partnership and have contributed to the development of the capabilities of the Egyptian military.
Sources in Washington told the Weekly that the Egyptian delegation had discussed in its talks with the congressmen and representatives of agencies concerned with bilateral cooperation and common interests Egypt’s efforts to secure regional shipping lanes and the Suez Canal and land and sea borders on various strategic fronts.
The Egyptian delegation reviewed in detail the efforts of the Egyptian Armed Forces to eradicate terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. “In most meetings, representatives and senators agreed that what has been achieved in the past months to defeat terrorism represents an important qualitative leap that deserves support for Egypt in its current efforts”, the sources added.
A source at a think tank in Washington said that the Egyptian delegation had said that terrorism has receded in not more than two per cent of Sinai and in the border areas. “In all the meetings with the American parties, Egypt’s vision of defeating terrorism focused on elements including military and security confrontation, on the one hand, and comprehensive intellectual, economic and social confrontations, on the other”.
For many years, Egypt has pointed to the need to dry up the sources of terrorism and to hold accountable countries that provide financial, political and logistical cover for extremist groups. Likewise, countries that provide media platforms for extremists should be subjected to legal and political accountability, something that has not received proper attention in US and Western circles.
Egyptian delegation during a visit to US Chamber of Commerce
Last month, David M Satterfield, US acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, told the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa that “in Egypt, our foreign assistance request includes $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing [FMF], supporting the Egyptian Armed Forces’ capacity to counter terrorism in Sinai, and to secure land and maritime borders. Our long-standing partnership across a range of regional issues, specifically efforts to defeat terrorism and prevent ISIS from strengthening its presence in Sinai, are critical to American national security interests in the region.”
“The United States will also continue funding priorities that advance American interests by strengthening the stability of the Egyptian state and the resiliency and prosperity of its 100 million people. For example, US assistance supports Egypt’s stability by helping to improve the quality of education and public health programmes, support responsive and accountable government institutions, and create opportunities for Egypt’s youth entering the workforce,”he said.
In the Capitol Hill meetings in Washington, Congress members from both the Democratic and Republican parties raised questions about the freedom to worship of Christians in the country with the Egyptian delegation, Al-Ahram Weekly learned. The Egyptian side responded that the Egyptian government had major achievements to its credit in the work of restoration and reconstruction since the burning of churches in Egypt by the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood group five years ago.
“Egyptian-American military relations have recovered momentum after experiencing challenges over recent years as a result of the suspension of some cooperation programmes, and manifestations of restoring the momentum of the relationship are the resumption of the Bright Star exercises, increasing intelligence cooperation, and information exchange,”one American insider told the Weekly.
“It is understandable that the Egyptian government feels uncomfortable because of the current political conditionality on the US military aid programme, and therefore wants to lift restrictions on the use of the programme, especially the identification of four areas for the disbursement of military aid,”he added.
According to different sources, the US political conditionality on the aid programme might push Egypt to work with other countries to meet its requirements for armaments.
There are also other major obstacles when making purchases from the aid programme or through the Egyptian state budget (which has spent almost $4 billion on spare parts and new weapons over the last few years).
In the recent rounds of talks, the Egyptian delegation stressed the need to reduce the political conditionality since it leads to a confusion between the political and military issues, which affects overall bilateral relations.
One source told the Weekly that “such a political conditionality sends the wrong message that the American counterparts do not understand the nature of the challenges Egypt is facing, including the challenge of domestic and regional terrorism.”
He emphasised that “Egypt has proved that it was absolutely right when it stressed the need to prevent the collapse of the nation state and to confront all Political Islam organisations without discriminating among them,” the source added.
Since 2012, Congress has passed appropriations legislation that withholds the obligation of FMF to Egypt until the US secretary of state certifies that Egypt is taking various steps towards supporting democracy and human rights.
Except for in the 2014 financial year, US lawmakers have included a national security waiver to allow the administration to waive these congressionally mandated certification requirements under certain conditions.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2018 contains the most recent legislative language conditioning aid to Egypt. As in previous years, it requires that funds may only be made available when the secretary of state certifies that the government of Egypt is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States and meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
The US Congressional Research Service in its latest update on Egypt last June elaborates that “the act also includes a provision that withholds $300 million of FMF funds until the secretary of state certifies that the government of Egypt is taking effective steps to advance, among other things, democracy and human rights in Egypt. The secretary of state may waive this certification requirement, though any waiver must be accompanied by, among other things, an assessment of the government of Egypt’s compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2270 and other such resolutions regarding North Korea.”
The United States has shown dissatisfaction with a certain number of policies that it considers to be detrimental to improving bilateral relations and returning them to a path that is in line with an important strategic relationship.
There is information in Washington that the US side is talking to Egyptian negotiators on specific issues that need to be settled before the end of the political conditionality. Congressmen raised issues of military cooperation between Egypt and North Korea, the growing ties with Russia, the promulgation of Egypt’s new NGO law and convictions in cases of foreign financing.
“When these issues were raised in the joint meetings, Egypt stressed that it was keen not to prejudice the course of strategic relations between the two countries and that it does not carry out acts that could harm US interests in the Middle East, despite the fact that Washington is taking steps that have hampered the partnership and harmed Egyptian interests, most notably political conditionality, the suspension of the delivery of Egyptian military equipment and spare parts, the reduction of aid, and others”, sources told Weekly.
Egyptian delegation in a meeting at the US congress
Egypt has made efforts to overcome controversial issues between Cairo and Washington, including clarifying Egypt’s commitment to implementing UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea, closing the Egyptian defence office in Pyongyang, and reducing Egyptian representation there. Cairo has also repeatedly explained the circumstances of the issuance of the NGO law at a difficult time for the internal Egyptian situation, pointing out that the executive regulation of the law has not yet been issued and is pending evaluation. There are 48,000 civil-society organisations operating freely in various civil society fields in the country, according to statistics from the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
Meanwhile, the political situation in Washington has cast a long shadow over US policy towards Egypt. The anti-Trump camp is exerting efforts to disrupt White House foreign policy in order to indicate the failure of the president to deal with critical issues. Policy towards Egypt is a major concern among a significant cohort of Democrats in Congress and various think tanks.
The Congressional hearing that criticised the Egyptian government and the outcome of the 30 June Revolution received applause in Washington, but the hearing that warned against the Muslim Brotherhood was scarcely reported in the US media or followed by US think tanks.
Last April, Egypt slammed a US Senate hearing that suggested that Washington was reconsidering its relationship with Cairo because of Egypt’s poor human-rights record, in other words deliberately aiming to present a negative image of the situation in the country.
The hearing, in the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programmes, was held to review US military aid for Egypt.
At the time, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed his “great regret at the way the meeting was organised, which sharply deviated from the usual pattern of such meetings over the years, leading to… a negative reading of the situation in Egypt.”
The three experts who testified at the hearing called for re-examining foreign assistance priorities and shaping a new approach to US-Egypt ties amid what they called the “deteriorating”security, economic, and political conditions in Egypt.
On 12 June, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing in which a number of members of Congress and experts emphasised that the Muslim Brotherhood had committed numerous acts of terrorism and that “jihadist ideology”has continued to fuel the group despite its renunciation of violence some decades ago.
Chair of the Subcommittee Ron De Santis told the hearing held to examine the potential threat the Brotherhood poses to the United States that the group’s one year in power in Egypt under former president Mohamed Morsi had produced “chilling”results.
“Morsi’s government used state institutions to promote Islamic radicalism, rolled back the freedom of the press and launched a wave of blasphemy prosecutions,”he said.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, called for a hearing under the title “Egypt: Security, Human Rights and Reform”on 24 July.
Those invited included regular names. One was Jared Genser, a well-known lawyer who has been campaigning for the release of the daughter of the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Youssef Al-Qaradawi and her husband from an Egyptian prison. Genser was represented at the hearing as an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Centre.
Another participant was Michele Dunne, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is a zealous critic of the Egyptian government and is often seen at such hearings.
A third name was Andrew Miller, deputy-director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), who wrote last April welcoming Egypt’s highest appeals court decision for a retrial in the 2012-2013 NGO foreign-funding case in which 43 US- and Germany-based non-governmental organisation employees were sentenced to up to five years in prison for illegally receiving foreign funds, operating without a licence, and performing prohibited activities in Egypt.
Miller published an article following the decision in The Hill newspaper saying that “this is also an opportunity for president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to prove his willingness to work for a better relationship with Washington. The 2013 verdicts continue to strain US-Egyptian relations, owing in part to the issue’s salience in Congress, where many view Case 173 as an anti-democratic travesty and an anti-American affront from an ostensibly close ally. Al-Sisi knows that Congress has a say on issues important to Egypt, especially US security assistance.”
In more than one official meeting in recent months, the Egyptian government has confirmed to US government agencies that civil-society organisations in Egypt will find answers to the concerns they have raised after the approved amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code.
Defendants in absentia can now exercise the right to file appeals and appoint lawyers to proceed with their case without having to be present in Egypt.
Furthermore, sources revealed that the Egyptian side has repeatedly stressed that in the case of final judgements a presidential pardon can be considered and the administration had accepted the new formula in dealing with this case. Defendants in absentia need to be persuaded to follow the proposed path and appoint lawyers.
In a message seen by the Weekly to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an Egyptian-American constituent in Florida asked the Congresswoman to reconsider the panel saying that “Egypt is not perfect and needs more reforms and improvement on several fronts but not by bringing negative witnesses with the objective of just stirring the situation and creating a wide gap between Egypt and the US.”
As can be seen from the outcomes of previous meetings and discussions, there are certain issues that are supported by a number of Congressmen in the US regarding relations with Egypt, including current ones, as in the case of the foreign funding of non-governmental organisations. Some researchers at major research centres have succeeded in drafting a congressional agenda and linking the funding case with vital strategic issues of US foreign policy.
The anger, or posture of rejection, within some prestigious US think tanks following the deviation of political transition scenarios in Egypt from ones they stood behind after the 25 January Revolution has led to an emphasis on controversial issues such as the issue of foreign funding in order to obtain concessions like the opening up of the Egyptian public domain to foreign-funded civil society groups without oversight from the state. This is unacceptable at present.
The use of Congressional hearings in the US to put pressure on Egypt on thorny issues under the guise of the protection of human rights, freedoms and minorities does not carry much credibility due to the double standards employed in dealing with human-rights issues, not least in the way that Congress and US think tanks deal with the human rights situation in the Palestinian Territories. In this area senior researchers are not lining up to make criticisms as they are in the unnecessary case of foreign funding in Egypt.
Outside the controversial hearings, according to informed sources the US and Egyptian governments are considering a short-term strategic vision based on specific goals including, among other goals, strengthening the strategic dialogue with the aim of discussing key issues between the two countries on a permanent basis, establishing new joint mechanisms to enhance the level of joint security coordination through the establishment of a new mechanism similar to what has become common with other countries in the region, and strengthening armaments and training in domestic counter-terrorism.
“Against all the odds in Washington, including an unwarranted propaganda campaign aiming at achieving other goals, both governments are working to alleviate cooperation in order to keep the military and security coordination at its highest level to contain current threats in the Middle East,”a senior Egyptian official in Washington said.