US midterm elections: Bad news for Sisi?
What the results could mean for Egypt
US Capitol - Courtesy: Wikimedia commons

The Democratic Party chalked up victories across the United States in the midterm elections on November 6, gaining control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years.

The Democrats needed to gain 23 seats to seize the House majority. So far, they have picked up at least 34 seats, giving them a majority of 229 seats to 198 for the Republicans, with eight races still undecided. Once all the absentee and provisional ballots are counted, the Democrats could win close to 40 seats, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the Republicans gained one seat in the Senate, giving them a majority of 51 seats in the upper chamber to 47 for the Democrats, with two races still undecided.

The outcome of the midterms breaks up the Republican monopoly in Washington and has dealt a blow to President Donald Trump midway through his first term in office. But what are the ramifications on US foreign policy? And, more specifically, what do the midterm election results mean for Egypt?

The answer is open-ended.

On the one hand, Egypt is rarely the subject of discussion on Capitol Hill anymore, and there is a general resignation and acceptance of the status quo. On the other, the country’s retreat from its historical leadership role in the region, combined with a renewed critical focus on its Gulf patrons, like Saudi Arabia, and an increasing skepticism in Washington of Egypt’s value as a partner, particularly from Democrats, may translate into greater scrutiny.

The US-Egypt relationship

For decades, Egypt has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington, a relationship anchored in the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Egypt’s position as a strategic Middle East partner for the US has consistently trumped any concerns about democracy or human rights, and both the White House and Congress have continued to back Egypt regardless of which party is in control.

The bulk of US funding to Egypt comes in the form of an annual US$1.3 billion military assistance package. While this aid has stayed relatively constant in dollar terms, it has become increasingly conditioned.

Since 2012, Congress has passed appropriations legislation that withholds military aid unless the Secretary of State certifies the country is taking various steps to support democracy and human rights. Even though the State Department’s own assessments of Egypt have acknowledged widespread abuses such as unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, successive Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State have regularly issued national security waivers to override these concerns and continue the funding.

Over the past several years, there have been some fluctuations. In 2013, President Obama suspended the supply of some military equipment in the wake of the Rabaa massacre, before restoring it again less than two years later. President Trump froze some funding in 2017, citing human rights issues and Egypt’s relationship with North Korea, only to lift most restrictions earlier this year. Egypt remains the second largest recipient of military assistance from the United States after Israel.

Although military aid has continued to flow into the country, economic funding to Egypt has been cut drastically. Over the past two decades, economic aid to Egypt has been reduced by over 90 percent, from $833 million in 1998 to a request of just $75 million for 2019, the lowest amount since the late 1970s.

“There’s been a long-term trend of diminishing congressional support for the US relationship with Egypt,” says Michelle Dunne, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official who closely follows Egypt. “These midterm elections will reinforce that trend.”

The regional context

With control of one of the chambers of Congress, Democrats are looking to push back against a range of President Trump’s domestic and foreign policies, including his stance on the Middle East.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in his own consulate last month has thrust Trump’s cosy relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman into the spotlight, as well as US involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen.

While Egypt has largely fallen off the radar in Washington, a more critical focus on America’s Gulf allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — particularly by Democrats, may color perceptions of Egypt.

“Egypt couldn’t be in the news less than it already is,” says Joshua Stacher, an associate professor of political science at Kent State University and the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria (2012). “But there’s starting to be a bundle of policies that are being discredited because of Trump’s embrace of them and Egypt’s definitely in there. Trump is basically for Sisi at every turn.”

Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been Sisi’s strongest defenders behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, and their once-influential private lobbying efforts may now carry less weight. “The Saudis and Emiratis have been privately going to members of Congress and members of the administration, trying to persuade them not to put pressure on Sisi. If these people and their approach is called into question, they might not be as effective,” Dunne says.

While analysts agree that Egypt is not a hot-button issue anymore, US military aid to Egypt accounts for nearly a quarter of all US military assistance worldwide, rendering it an important funding consideration nevertheless.

“What’s taking place in Egypt gets far less coverage than it did previously, with one exception,” says Andrew Miller, the deputy director for policy at the Project for Middle East Democracy and the former director for Egypt and Israel military issues on the National Security Council under President Obama. “When appropriations season arrives, Egypt comes in for a lot of attention, so this is one area where Egypt is coming into more focus, even though its overall profile is the same.”

The new Congress

In recent years, there has been more criticism of Egypt in the Senate than in the House. Democrats like Patrick Leahy and Chris Murphy and Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain have all been critical of President Sisi, particularly over Egypt’s draconian NGO law.

Yet with the Republicans retaining control of the Senate, there will likely be little change toward Egypt in the upper chamber.

“In the Senate, it will more or less be the status quo,” Miller says. “Some will continue being skeptical of Egypt’s value as a partner, but we’ll see no dramatic change.”

It’s in the House where a lot of fresh faces are coming in and many old ones are heading out.

One of the Republican incumbents that lost his seat to a Democratic challenger, California representative Dana Rohrabacher, happened to be President Sisi’s biggest cheerleader in Congress.

Rohrabacher has described Sisi as “a defender of the good things we believe in.” In 2014, he formed the Egypt Caucus to further relations between the United States and Egypt. He has also met with Sisi several times, including traveling to Cairo in February 2017 to bolster ties between the two countries following President Trump’s inauguration.

“What Sisi loses with Rohrabacher is over-the-top and effusive praise and an opportunity for propaganda in approaches to Egypt,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York City-based think tank. “But Rohrabacher was something of an oddity and not someone who was at the center of his party’s conversation about foreign or national policies.”

On the other hand, several newly elected Democrats entering Capitol Hill armed with years of experience in national security and diplomacy are looking to challenge President Trump on foreign policy. Chief among them is Tom Malinowski, who defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in the race for New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.

Malinowski was the Washington director of Human Rights Watch from 2001 to 2013, where he was a leading advocate for ending the US use of torture and black sites. He joined the Obama administration in 2013 as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Last year, he delivered a scathing assessment of President Sisi in his testimony before a Senate subcommittee hearing on US aid to Egypt.

“In the House, you will have a number of new Democrats who are experienced in foreign policy, including myself, who are not likely to accept the argument that a dictator is necessary for stability,” Malinowski says. “I would characterize President Sisi’s policies as disastrous from the standpoint of human rights and America’s national security. Egypt has done absolutely nothing for the United States that justifies the provision of billions of dollars of military aid.”

The Congressmember-elect tells Mada Masr he plans to be a vocal advocate for human rights on Capitol Hill and says he believes there will be greater scrutiny of Washington’s relationship with Cairo in the House of Representatives.

“I make no promises, but I do believe that there is likely to be greater skepticism, in part because you have a few more people entering the Congress who care about human rights and because the Egyptian government has failed to demonstrate what benefit the United States gets from this relationship,” he says. “I would also expect a much more critical focus on the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and that may have some implications for how Egypt is viewed.”

Along with a new House majority, the Democrats are set to take control of all the committees and subcommittees in the lower chamber, including the three that affect Egypt most directly: foreign relations, appropriations and armed services, although the incoming Democratic leadership appear to be far less dynamic than their freshmen colleagues.

The new chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to be New York Representative Eliot Engel. Hawkish on Iran and decidedly pro-Israel, Engel was also highly critical of President Obama for suspending military aid to Egypt in the wake of the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in.

“In managing America’s foreign policy, there are times when our ideals and our security interests don’t conveniently align,” Engel said in October 2013. “The situation in Egypt today is a case in point.”

Nevertheless, Miller says Engel “has been increasingly critical of what is taking place in Egypt,” mirroring a trend where the party not in the White House can afford to be more vocally critical on various issues, including foreign policy.

“The Democrats are in opposition now. When you are in opposition, you are less concerned about things than when you’re in power,” Miller says. “Even many Democrats who were reluctant to criticize Egypt under Obama would have no qualms about doing that now; they don’t risk the relationship. It’s not consistent, but it’s the reality of life in Washington.”

Not all Democrats are expected to be more outspoken. On the powerful Appropriations Committee, which regulates fiscal expenditures made by the federal government, the incoming chair is expected to be New York Representative Nita Lowey, who according to Miller, is “the Democrat most resistant to changing the relationship with Egypt.”

Meanwhile, Democrat Congressmember Adam Smith, the next chair of the Armed Services Committee, which oversees military affairs and defense spending, has received thousands of dollars in contributions from major weapons manufacturers in his 2018 campaign. Smith was also one of only 16 Democrats in 2016 to vote down a measure to prevent the transfer of US weapons to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. Yet he signaled a shift in attitude last year when he signed onto a resolution to bring an end to US military support for the conflict. Smith also says he plans to increase oversight of the military, including auditing the Pentagon to ensure taxpayer dollars are wisely spent.

“People don’t want to withdraw US support from Egypt because they fear instability, and I don’t expect any of this to bring about a dramatic change at this point,” Dunne says. “But what I think is that it’s definitely a more negative context and environment for Sisi in Washington.”

Sharif Abdel Kouddous 

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