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Egypt Softens Tone in U.S. Relations

Prior to President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s first visit to the White House in April, it was reported that his United States counterpart, Donald Trump, sought to “reboot” the countries’ bilateral relations. It wasn’t long before Egypt’s media were hailing a new era in U.S.-Egypt ties, celebrating what was dubbed as a renewed historic partnership after a period of tense relations between the countries under the Barack Obama administration, which kept a watchful eye over Egypt’s human rights record, particularly after the military takeover in 2013. Since then, Egypt has faced an erratic U.S. administration, but has remained unwavering, using discourse consistent with a rebooted relationship—even when confronted with less-than-consistent decisions.

Earlier this week, the U.S. decided to withhold $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and delay another $195 million, citing concerns over the latter’s human rights record. The decision caught many off guard, since Trump had expressed his support for Sisi’s counterterrorism approach, inadvertently making clear his intention to overlook the violations that this approach entails. (The State Department clarified that Egypt’s foreign minister had been notified before the decision was reported.) Still, Egypt is choosing to give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt. The day following the reports of the aid decision, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a softly worded statement, saying it “regrets the decision,” considering it a “misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations” between the countries.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid is a harsh and assertive voice at the ministry, especially when it comes to matters that relate to Egypt’s sovereignty or domestic affairs. He is notorious for frequently berating foreign journalists for what he deems is agenda-ridden coverage, through statements as well as numerous articles on the ministry’s blog. However, in a phone-in on an Egyptian talk show, Abu Zeid echoed the ministry’s sentiment, further highlighting the contradiction between the nature of the countries’ bilateral relations and the U.S. aid decision, even implying that it must not have come from the White House. “Decision making in the U.S. is complicated and involves different circles not limited to the administration,” he explained. “Congress plays a role and therefore sometimes decisions are subject to review and tensions between the different circles.” He added that such decisions are also swayed by U.S. civil society and media. Abu Zeid also asserted that this decision reflects a lack of awareness about the nature of not only the domestic situation, but of the overall relationship between the countries. “This is not in line with what we hear from the U.S. about supporting Egypt and its stability in the face of challenges, whether economic or security,” he said, reiterating that this does not reflect “a crisis between both countries.”

U.S. media had reported that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry canceled his meeting with U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner, but it wasn’t long before the ministry’s page was posting pictures of Shoukry and Sisi with Kushner and other U.S. officials. Abu Zeid raised questions about the U.S. media reports, saying that the meeting was never canceled, but that the minister’s schedule is subject to amendments several times a day. Details of the meeting, which revolved around regional issues, were also splashed on the front pages of state media, highlighting the importance of the U.S. and Egypt’s strategic relationship. Pro-government newspaper Youm7 even went as far as suggesting that a conspiracy involving “Obama’s allies” and Qatar was behind the decision to cut the aid.

These benign reactions are a far cry from the defiant and harsh attitude Egypt adopted when the U.S., under Obama, similarly announced in October 2013 that it would suspend deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters, and missiles to Cairo, as well as $260 million in cash aid. The decision came a few months after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Muhammad Morsi, the violent dispersal of pro-Brotherhood camps that killed hundreds of people, and the arrest of thousands of Brotherhood members and activists. At the time, the U.S. said it wanted to push Egypt toward a more democratic path. The aid cuts were met with outrage in Egypt, and a general “Egypt will not yield” mantra: Local newspapers went as far as calling Obama a terrorist, with bold headlines reading, “Screw the U.S. aid.”

In its statement at that time, the Foreign Ministry called the decision “errant in both of substance and timing.” The ministry also cast doubt on the willingness of the U.S. to support Egypt’s economic and security programs, especially in light of “the terrorist threats and challenges currently facing Egypt.” The statement affirmed that Egypt would make decisions regarding its internal affairs in a manner independent of “external influences.” It also implied that it would turn to other countries to “secure the consistent and stable provision of its vital needs.” In an interview, then-former Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdelatty said that Egypt will not surrender to American pressure and will continue on its path toward democracy.

State media quoted then-Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy as openly saying that U.S.-Egypt relations are in a state of turmoil. Fahmy also said that while Egypt had been dependent on U.S. aid for too long, the U.S. was wrong to assume that Egypt would always submit to its policies and goals. He also warned that instability in ties would “reflect negatively on the entire region, including American interests,” and lamented that Egypt had long failed to diversify its options in terms of receiving aid. Military sources were also quoted by Reuters as well as local newspapers as hinting that Egypt may turn to Russia instead, as it plans to diversify and explore other options.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel, receiving $1.3 billion annually. But since 2014, Egypt has indeed diversified its options, relying on Russia for supply, as well as other countries such as France and Germany. In September 2013, Russia and Egypt signed a preliminary deal to buy arms worth $3.5 billion from Moscow. In June this year, Egypt reportedly received a long-range air defense system from Russia.

Now, Egypt has turned over a new leaf with the Trump White House, marking the end of a tense relationship with his predecessor, whose administration was systematically accused of interfering in domestic affairs. In light of a “rebooted” relationship with a new administration, perhaps Egypt has no reason to doubt Trump’s intentions. It was clear during his first visit to the White House that Sisi found a kindred spirit in Trump. Their alliance was cemented with the parallels drawn between both leaders; fighting terrorism was at the top of their agenda, with respect for human rights seemingly sidelined. Trump’s praise of Sisi and affirmation that he has done “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation” further stroked Sisi’s ego.

Egypt thus does not see the Trump administration continuing to push for better human rights conditions. However, if Trump keeps defying expectations, it is unlikely that Egypt will concede without putting forth some demands of its own.