Congress sours US ties with Egypt

The decision by the US Congress to block aid to Egypt is disrupting America's relationship across the region

The Obama administration, gradually, appears to be shifting its position over the Arab world’s largest country. If only the same could be said for the United States Congress.

Relations between the US and Egypt have been difficult since the Egyptian army removed Mohammed Morsi as president last summer. The US suspended the aid package that underpins the peace treaty with Israel; it resumed it in January. Gradually, the White House appears to have grasped the necessity of Mr Morsi’s removal and understood the gravity of what the Muslim Brotherhood represents to Egypt and other allies in the region.

But now Congress has again halted part of the package, citing the recent sentencing to death of hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. One senator called it “an appalling abuse of the justice system”.

America’s Congress sometimes acts like a recalcitrant sibling, seeking to block what the more sober White House wants to do. The US system has checks and balances, but Mr Obama seems to understand the reality of Egypt far more than members of Congress, many of whose experience of foreign policy is limited. Mr Obama, at least, has been to Egypt.

This lack of exposure to the reality of the politics of the Middle East is troubling and leads to misunderstandings. Not merely on Egypt, of course. Congress is famously pro-Israel, even beyond the point of reason, beyond even what most Americans would like. Congress often throws a spanner in the works of the president’s agenda, as it has done on this occasion. Although this time it was a politician from Mr Obama’s own party who started the spat, it is more often the opposing Republicans who cause the trouble.

Yet America’s ties with Egypt are too important for such party political angling. America’s allies in the region are already wondering about the US commitment. The Gulf especially is seriously disappointed at the loss of nerve over Syria. The desire for a deal with Iran, apparently at any cost, is another sticking point. And Egypt is a third: the Arab world’s largest country must be stabilised, for the good of the region and to the benefit of the Gulf states.

Congress does not understand Egypt. Now this lack of understanding is impacting not only Egypt itself, but America’s relationship with the rest of the Middle East.

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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