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The scope of the Egyptian-US rift

Within weeks, the US Secretary of State is to head to Congress to testify on Egypt, which may result in lifting the freeze on military aid to the country

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Wednesday 4 Mar 2015

Since the Egyptian army took over political power in Egypt in mid-2013, tensions with the United States have escalated, twisted and turned unexpectedly.

This has given decision makers who appreciate the importance ofdiplomatic relations a headache from which they have yet to recover. Policy planners on both sides cannot imagine an absence of special relations between the two countries, but the intricacies of bilateral relations over the past 18 months indicate that there will not be a breakthrough during President Barack Obama’s tenure ending on 19 January, 2017.

Among the most important points of contention are weapons supply to the Egyptian army, divergent positions on intervention in Libya, and Washington’s criticism of absence of freedoms and disrespect for human rights in Egypt.

Washington believes that giving other armies US weapons guarantees it relative direct and indirect influence in the affairs of these states. For many decades since the middle of the last century, arming Egypt’s military has remained a key tactical goal for the US. After restoring military relations with Washington in 1976, these ties developed until Egypt became the second largest recipient of military aid after signing the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Egypt has received nearly $75 billion in military aid over the years, and US strategy experts cannot imagine the absence of special relations with the Egyptian army. Washington does not want an Egyptian army that receives weapons from other rival countries such as Russia and China, or even friendly ones such as France and Britain. 

The US freezing military aid to Egypt for more than 18 months has had a great negative impact on the Egyptian army, which views Washington as twisting its arm whereas it is in the midst of an extensive war on terrorism.

By recently signing a deal to buy 24 French Rafale aircrafts, Egypt is launching a new phase of diversification, and sending a message to Washington that Cairo can diversify its sources of weapons and will not allow Washington to hold the monopoly of arming the Egyptian army in the future.

The US administration’s rejection of Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi’s call for a Security Council resolution to allow for the formation of an international coalition to intervene in Libya – in the wake of Egyptian air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militant group targets there, after the slaying of 20 innocent Egyptians – further deepened the rift in relations.

The US, along with key European countries such as Italy, France, Britain, Spain and German, issued a joint statement on 17 February, stating that the UN-led effort to reach a national coalition government in Libya is the best way to address violence and instability in the North Africa country. The statement added that UN special envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon will continue his efforts to reach a political solution that will lead to a national unity government. The statement added that parties that do not wish to participate in the conciliation process to reach a political solution in Libya will be excluded. Many experts viewed this statement as a warning to Cairo on the limits of its regional role and limits to intervening in Libyan affairs. This was viewed as a huge diplomatic loss.

Cairo’s insistence on excluding the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Washington’s insistence on dealing with the MB is also an obstacle in improving relations. A visit by an MB group last month to Washington confirmed the depth of this dispute. The upset tone of Egypt’s foreign minister was enough evidence of the deep rift, as was Cairo’s refusal to accept Washington’s justifications for the MB meeting. Washington believes Cairo has “gone too far” in its campaign against the MB and their supporters. 

While Washington has listed Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis as a terrorist group, a prominent US official said that the MB is not a threat to Washington, and noted Washington’s belief until now that equating the MB with IS will negatively impact and undermine the war on terror.

Within weeks, US Secretary of State John Kerry will head to Congress to testify on Egypt, which may result in lifting the freeze on military aid to the country.

On 22 April, 2014, Kerry gave a mixed testimony on Egypt. The positive portion on the Egyptian regime allowed the White House to lift the ban on sending dozens of Apache helicopters to the Egyptian army. Kerry told Congress that Egypt maintains strategic relations with the US on important issues, such as confronting joint terrorist threats and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He also noted Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.

On the negative side, Kerry could not testify that Egypt was taking steps to support the democratic transformation process, and called on Cairo to implement its commitments to democratic transition by holding free and transparent elections, lifting restrictions on freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly and freedom of the media. Please see my article published in Al-Shurouq on 25 April, 2014.

However, looking at Egypt’s record on freedoms, human rights and political activism, as well as unusual verdicts by Egyptian courts, such as death penalties against political opponents, makes it more difficult for the US administration to grant assistance to the Egyptian army.

Thus, Kerry is likely to repeat what he said one year ago, which may foretell that Egyptian-US relations will not improve any time soon.

The writer is a researcher focused on Egyptian politics.

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