The Muslim Brotherhood celebrated Joe Biden’s arrival to power in Washington earlier this year with nearly the same degree of triumph they felt when Mohamed Morsi became president of Egypt in 2012.
They imagined that the new administration would reshape the regional political scene by reviving the Barack Obama administration’s biases, which had facilitated their hijacking of the Arab Spring in their drive to reach power in Egypt and other countries in the region. But they failed to appreciate that the circumstances of the Obama era no longer apply in the light of the changes that took place during the four years in which the Democrats were out of power in both the White House and Congress in Washington.
The Muslim Brothers’ presumptions were based on the differences between the US and Egyptian administrations’ priorities on the question of human rights. While Washington homes in on one of the 30 rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Article 19 on freedom of opinion and expression, Cairo espouses a developmental approach. Its foremost aim is to lift 30 million citizens from below the poverty line and to enable them to attain higher levels on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, as set out by US psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Given Biden’s pledges on coming to office, there is a possibility that bilateral tensions could surface around such differences, and the Muslim Brotherhood was banking on the hope that Washington in the Biden era would come down hard on Egypt with punitive measures depriving it of the economic and development aid it receives in accordance with the Camp David Accords.
The Muslim Brotherhood has mobilised its followers and supporters to notch up their lobbying efforts towards this end. One way in which it has done this has been through the so-called Federation of Egyptian National Forces. Created in March, it includes a number of prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures who plan to testify before the US House of Representative’s Human Rights Committee in the hope that the House, in which Democrats hold a comfortable majority, will issue statements condemning Egypt.
Among the key members of the Federation are Mokhtar Al-Eshri, a member of the legal committee of the now banned Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Saber Aboul-Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood hardliner named chairman of the Labour Force Committee in the 2013 parliament, Mostafa Hindawi, a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council, and Walid Sharabi, a spokesman for the Judges for the Sake of Egypt Coalition that was closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brothers have also pursued indirect means to promote their ends. From 2017 to 2021, one of their main backers, Qatar, signed 63 agreements totaling billions of dollars with public-relations firms to promote certain individuals and entities to serve lobbying and pressure campaigns to advance Muslim Brotherhood agendas related to Egyptian domestic and foreign-policy issues. This is nearly two-thirds of the 102 agreements that Qatar has signed since 1977. In 2020 and up until mid-August 2021, Qatar signed 17 such agreements, or a fifth of those it has signed since independence. Such figures are a concrete gauge of the efforts and money Qatar has poured into expanding its influence.
A prime example is the agreement signed between the Qatar embassy and the US firm Holland and Knight LLP on 20 February 2020, engaging the firm to provide consultation and advice on how to communicate and engage with key US policy-makers and Republican Congresspersons in particular. Qatar pays the firm $35,000 per month just as a retainer, and this does not cover the actual costs of the firm’s advice. Another example is the agreement Doha struck with the US firm Praia Consultants LLC in August 2020 to the tune of $100,000 per month in exchange for advice and support for its relations with decision-makers in the US.
These efforts have born some fruit. On 25 January 2021, US representatives Tom Malinowski and Don Beyer announced the creation of the Egyptian Human Rights Caucus in Washington to mark the tenth anniversary of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Its purpose is primarily to target US aid to Egypt.
“American interests have not been served by a policy of unconditional support for the Egyptian military, while downplaying the military-led government’s human-rights abuses, corruption, and mistreatment of American citizens,” Malinowski said. Malinowski also joined forces with representative Adam Schiff to up the pressure in the name of human rights during the House’s discussions of the 2020 appropriations bill that covers government assistance programmes to Washington’s friends and allies.
The Biden administration has made it clear that it is disinclined to support major reductions in aid to Egypt in view of the strategic relations between the two countries and Egypt’s crucial role in the region. Egypt has established its value in the framework of various major regional issues, to which testify its success in brokering the recent truce between Israel and Hamas, its crucial influence concerning energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Russian pressures in that sector, its coordination with Europe to combat organised crime and human trafficking across the Mediterranean, and the growing importance of the Egyptian security establishment in the fight against terrorism.
The two congressmen have reduced their demand to a cut of $75 million in economic aid to Egypt, but even that relatively modest sum has found no takers in Washington.
Under the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Funding Act that was just approved by the House of Representatives, Article 7041 provides for $1.43 billion in economic assistance to Egypt for 2022. This includes $125 million in economic aid, $3.5 million in counterterrorism assistance, $1.8 million to support military training, and $1.3 billion in military assistance. Egypt has thus retained its place as the second-largest recipient of US military aid after Israel, which receives $3.3 billion.
The lesson to be learned here, as was borne out in the debates over the appropriations in the House, is that Egyptian-US relations remain consummately strategic, regardless of any tensions that might arise as one administration succeeds another in Washington or differences between the two countries’ priorities. This is a relationship forged and sustained by core institutions, and as such it remains separate from tactical political games.
As Mira Resnick, US deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, stressed when responding to questions involving human rights and military support, Egypt remains a “critical security partner” of the US.
Even so, the Egyptian administration needs to continue to build its diplomatic strengths and to acquire more means to assert pressure and influence regionally. Perhaps the best avenue towards this end would be to augment Egypt’s role as the key to security and stability, a solid, reliable, and indispensable partner in the pursuit of peace, and a vital force for progress and development in a very volatile region.
*The writer is senior researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly