When the US under President Donald Trump expounds a new foreign policy vision it is natural to ask how this will affect its relations with Egypt.
Both countries realise that, however their government administrations may change, they have certain interests in common in the Middle East and these compel them to work together to their mutual advantage, regardless of the differences between them over the means towards this end.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his speech in Cairo, underscored a couple of points that help define Washington’s foreign policy philosophy under Trump. He said that “the United States knows that we can’t, and should not, fight every fight or sustain every economy.”
“No nation wants to be dependent on another. Our aim — our aim — is to partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies, because a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest, and it’s in yours as well.”
He also said that the US supports Egypt’s efforts to destroy the Islamic State (IS) in Sinai.
“As the fighting continues, we will continue to assist our partners in efforts to guard borders, prosecute terrorists, screen travellers, assist refugees and more. But ‘assist’ is the key phrase. We ask every peace-loving nation of the Middle East to shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamist extremism wherever we find it… And as we seek an even stronger partnership with Egypt, we encourage President [Abdel-Fattah Al-] Sisi to unleash the creative energy of Egypt’s people, unfetter the economy, and promote a free and open exchange of ideas. The progress made to date can continue.”
These two points bring us to two issues that have dominated the debate over US-Egyptian relations since the 1970s — “military aid” and “human rights”. Divisions over these two issues still exist and will probably continue to exist in both Egypt and the US.
In Egypt, those supporting strong relations with the US reject any linkage between “aid” and human rights which, some quarters in Washington argue, are core US values that Egypt should uphold.
The opposing camp maintains that without such a linkage sufficient pressure cannot be brought to bear on the Egyptian regime to improve human rights.
In the US there has been a sharp division between those who believe it is necessary to maintain a permanent level of aid to Egypt in order to safeguard vital US interests and that, as important as the question of human rights is, efforts to address this concern should not be allowed to undermine the strategic relations between the two countries and should be pursued independently of the question of military assistance, and those who argue it is the US tax payers’ right to know how and where their money is being spent and whether its recipients are committed to universal values.
They add that to delink aid from human rights is detrimental to the US’ image among the Egyptian public.
The two sides of the debate in the US are exemplified in the articles “House democrats slash aid to Egypt” in Al-Monitor, 4 January, and “The US is right to restore aid to Egypt” in Commentary, 30 July 2018.
The former covers the campaign on the part of some Democrats in the House of Representatives to cut military aid to Egypt by $300 million in protest against alleged human rights abuses and the continued detention of US citizens in Egypt.
The second article argues in favour of sustaining the level of military aid to Egypt and searching for alternative ways to address the human rights question.
Pompeo’s speech at the American University in Cairo touches in significant ways on the above-mentioned views in both the US and Egypt.
It is important to stress, here, that Cairo has continuously demonstrated its belief in the importance of strong relations with the US and, simultaneously, that it fully subscribes to the view, expressed by Pompeo, that aid does not dispense with performance to meet security and economic needs.
In fact, Egypt has not let aid become a critical determinant of how it handles issues that are crucial to both Egypt and the US. In fact, for a long time now US aid has accounted for less than 10 per cent of Egypt’s GDP.
Theoretically, cutting it would not present such a great problem to the Egyptian budget. But aid does remain an essential ingredient to the momentum of this bilateral relationship in which context it would be useful to change the term “aid” to “America’s contribution to the strategic partnership with Egypt”.
It is impossible to overstate the role Egypt has played in combating terrorism and countering Iranian expansionism in the region, which is as essential to American and, indeed, international security, as it is to Egyptian national security.
Accordingly, decision-makers in Washington would do well to explain to US taxpayers that the “aid” to Egypt that their tax dollars pay for is not given free of charge.
They and their government get what they pay for, and more, from their partnership with the recipient. Decision-makers should also inform US taxpayers that, while Egypt is motivated to fight terrorism and Iranian expansion because this serves Egypt’s national interests, without their government’s contribution to these efforts their own country’s interests and the security of its citizens could be put at risk.
Meanwhile, it is worth pointing out that the research departments of major arms manufacturers in the US save billions of dollars thanks to the findings they acquire from the real-life performance of their products on the ground in Egypt’s battle against terrorism. It goes without saying that this is of direct interest to the US manufacturing sector and, by extension, to the US taxpayer.
As for human rights, the politicisation of this issue by some quarters in Washington, both now and in the past, needs to be considered more closely.
Reports submitted to the White House and Congress inevitably contain erroneous information and exaggerations.
Most human rights activists and this does not apply to Egypt alone either belong to left wing currents or to the Islamist camp.
Both of these disseminate an anti-American discourse that casts the US as an imperialist power rather than a “force for good in the Middle East”, as Pompeo put it. More importantly, these two political currents care little about the principles of democracy and human rights in their own literature and practices.
For them, these principles are merely weapons that they use in their struggle to acquire power and to advance their narrow interests, while their behaviour within their own parties, political bodies and associations betray complete disrespect for transparency, the rule of law, democracy and the right to differ.
Indeed, just as some in the US argue that Egypt should be held to account for its alleged human rights violations, it is equally valid to hold that the agencies in the US that support NGOs in Egypt should ascertain that those responsible for the operations of these organisations here actually spend their funds on the stated purposes, that they do not pursue ulterior political motives behind the guise of rights advocacy, and that they practise what they preach, namely transparency and democracy in their internal elections and other organisational processes.
Although Pompeo’s speech in Cairo may have triggered outcries from Democratic and even some Republican circles in Congress, and from similarly minded civil society activists in Egypt who feel that he did not show sufficient concern for the principles of democracy and human rights, this should be regarded as an exercise of the rights of freedom of opinion and expression.
At the same time, his remarks are testimony to the fact that Egyptian-US relations can continue to grow stronger when the two sides focus on their real interests, without allowing the subject of human rights to encroach on to the political debate which, by definition, is neither objective nor impartial.
Pompeo did right not to ignore the issue. But he kept it in perspective, which is to say free from emotive hyperbole and from an unproductive linkage between human rights and the larger realm of the US-Egyptian partnership.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Interests stronger than differences