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Why did the US decision to delay or cancel almost US$300 million in aid to Egypt catch Cairo by surprise?
 
 

The US announced a decision on Tuesday to deny US$95.7 million in grants and aid to Egypt, as well as to delay the disbursement of $195 million in military aid because of “Egypt’s failure to respect human rights and democratic norms,” according to sources in Trump’s administration.

Officials in Cairo appeared surprised by this decision, particularly following mutual statements of admiration between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Donald Trump since the latter’s election in November, and a history of the US waiving conditions and delivering military aid anyway, based on a clause in US law that permits the granting of aid in situations that impact US security interests.

So, why is Trump’s administration holding the funds, and why the ambiguity?

The move has been linked to reports of a canceled meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Jared Kushner, US presidential adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, on Wednesday morning. Yet pictures published on the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s official Facebook page on Wednesday evening appeared to show the US adviser meeting with Shoukry after all.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret on Wednesday morning that the US had decided to reduce the agreed upon sum in aid to Egypt, “whether through the direct reduction of some components of the economic program, or postponing the disbursement of military aid.” The withholding of funds indicates a misunderstanding of the decades-long bilateral relationship between the two nations, the ministry added, and the “adoption of a path that does not accurately understand the importance of supporting Egypt’s stability, nor the nature of the economic and security challenges the Egyptian people face.”

This escalation may signal an attempt by the Trump administration to increase pressure on the Egyptian government, in an attempt to push it to adopt less restrictive measures regarding human rights and democracy. However, some details remain unclear. For example, why did the US not put off this decision until the beginning of the new fiscal year on September 30, 2018?

Redirecting aid money to other countries

The total amount of US aid received by Egypt between 1946 and 2013 amounts to over $73 billion. The amount increased significantly after the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. Non-military economic aid has steadily decreased since the mid-1990s, reaching $150 million by 2015, while military aid stabilized at $1.3 billion during the same period.

Some reports indicate that a sum of $95.7 million of promised aid to Egypt from this fiscal year will be reprogrammed to other countries who are also in the US aid program, according to US officials cited by Reuters. This sum is made up of $30 million in economic aid and $65.7 million in military aid.

Often there is an amount of economic aid left over in such programs, explains Amr Kotb, director of government relations at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, especially in this case, as the Egyptian government has refused to disburse the funds to civil society organizations, as required by the foreign assistance act.

Approximately $400 million has accrued in total unused US economic aid over the years, according to Kotb. As a result, the US Congress passed a law this year enabling such funds to be redistributed to other countries, like Tunisia.

The standoff is based on disputes over three separate aid packages. The first concerns an intention to reprogram the $65.7 million in military aid from the 2014 Fiscal Year, which Congress blocked under the Leahy laws, which “prohibit assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross human rights violations.” According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the US Congress was suspicious that the Egyptian military was using US sponsored military equipment in Sinai in missions that resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. Trump’s administration reportedly determined it would be impossible to address these concerns before the end of the fiscal year in September, according to the Institute. Secondly, the US is seeking to redirect $30 million in economic aid within the region based on Egypt’s human rights record.

The third package concerns 15 percent of the $1.3 billion US annual military aid, which Congress conditioned on Egypt showing it is taking steps toward improving its human rights record. This is the amount that Trump’s administration is holding and debating the conditions over, which are currently vague, according to the Washington Institute.

This is somewhat surprising, especially as the current US administration has indicated a strong desire to strengthen military cooperation with Egypt, with Foreign Policy magazine reporting that both countries intend to resume Operation Bright Star, one of the largest multinational military training operations worldwide, in September. The program includes 12 countries, including the US, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Jordan, and usually takes place in Egypt.

The training operation was initiated in 1981 by the US and Egypt, and was originally intended to take place every two years. It was suspended between 1989 and 1993 during the US-led military operation to retake Kuwait from Iraq, and again in 2003 due to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The last time the joint training occurred was in 2009, as the joint exercises were canceled in 2011 due to the January revolution in Egypt.

The military collaboration was canceled again in 2013 by the Obama administration after the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, when the US also blocked the delivery of some military equipment to Egypt, a decision that was reversed in April 2015.

The training exercises are scheduled to resume after the Armed Forces agrees to refocus its efforts on developing counterterrorism tactics, such as detecting and dismantling roadside explosive devices and border security, particularly in relation to ongoing armed conflict in Sinai.

Military aid and human rights

US law stipulates that the government is required to withhold $195 million of its annual military aid to Egypt — 15 percent of the $1.3 billion — if Egypt fails to make progress on its human rights and democracy record. If the Trump administration does not perceive palpable progress in this area before the end of the fiscal year in September, the funds will be withheld.

The caveat, however, is that US law permits the State Department to issue a security waiver exempting Cairo from meeting these requirements if Egypt’s receipt of US military aid is seen to be “in the interests of US national security.” If the decision is taken to issue the security waiver, as the US did in 2015, the administration must present a report to congress.

This is what the US government initially moved to do, according to Reuters. The State Department agreed to exempt Egypt from conditional aid based on its human rights and democracy record, and transferred $195 million into an Egyptian bank account, to avoid the sum being blocked before the end of the current fiscal year. However, the Trump administration has now moved to prevent Egypt from withdrawing the aid until Cairo meets yet undeclared measures concerning human rights.

Kotb speculates this is a move that is intended to send a clear message saying, “We could have permanently withheld the money in accordance with Congress’ requirements, but now we are holding it temporarily.”

Analysts, including Kotb, relate this move to the US administration’s demands for the Egyptian government to ease the pressure being exerted on civil society organizations, particularly in light of Egypt’s new NGO law, ratified in May, and the ongoing case against civil society organizations.

“It was in the US’ interests to exercise the waiver,” says US Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson, as security cooperation with Egypt is important for US national security.

In a series of tweets posted on Wednesday, Alison McManus, director of research at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, asserted that, regardless of Egypt’s compliance with human rights requirements, the money is now in the hands of the US administration. In the absence of a US ambassador in Egypt, this gives the Trump administration some leverage, she adds.

Others, such as Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, think the US should just have redirected the money to other countries. Bockenfeld remarked in a Twitter thread on Tuesday that this would have sent a stronger message to the Egyptian government regarding human rights, as the constant waiving of conditions renders them meaningless.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

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Mostafa Mohie