US fears over Cairo’s security objectives hard to dispel

Resumption of military aid after election may not materialise despite pressure from Gulf Arab allies.

The US secretary of state John Kerry meets the then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi in Cairo on March 3, 2013. Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo
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Washington // Egyptian officials and diplomats from the Arabian Gulf have spent the build-up to today’s presidential election trying to persuade the US to end its freeze on military aid to Cairo.

Washington froze most of the US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) it gave to Egypt’s armed forces annually after the military, led by Abdel Fattah El Sisi, unseated Mohammed Morsi’s Islamist-led government last July.

Last month, the US government relaxed its position and said it would release $650 million in military financing after Secretary of State John Kerry certified that Egypt was continuing its peace treaty with Israel. It also announced that it would send Egypt 10 Apache helicopters to help it fight insurgents. But the restoration of some of the aid has since been placed a hold by senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, because of his concerns over Egypt’s human rights record.

Despite the diplomatic efforts from the Gulf and Egypt, the presidential election, which is expected to be won by Mr El Sisi, is unlikely to normalise Cairo’s relationship with Washington, analysts say.

While the US and GCC countries have a shared interest in helping Egypt revive its economy and fight a growing terrorism threat, they hold opposing views about its political transition.

Many in the Obama administration and Congress want to put the relationship with Egypt back on track, according to Arab officials in Washington.

“Over the past month, the United States and Egyptian governments have attempted to overcome the tensions that have characterised their bilateral relations since the July 2013 coup by refocusing the US-Egypt relationship on urgent mutual interests: counterterrorism first among them,” security analyst Zack Gold wrote on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website.

Saudi and Emirati diplomats have also pushed the US, Britain and France to support Egypt’s new leadership, the Egyptian analyst Emad Jad said.

But the continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal critics of the interim government, mass death sentences and the prosecution of journalists are forcing “a fundamental questioning of where this strategic relationship should go in coming years”, said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation think tank in New York.

Even though restoring the military aid would only require the US to certify Egypt is taking “credible steps” towards democratic rule, “Egypt has simply not given the US the ... chance to even begin to implement a course correction, and that’s unlikely to change”, Mr Hanna said.

A victory by Mr El Sisi in an election widely expected to be free will not address the conflict at the heart of the troubled relationship between US and Egypt: divergent views of what a strategy of stabilisation, including counterterrorism, should be.

US officials, especially in the White House, view Mr El Sisi’s efforts to outlaw and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood as a mistake that will alienate many Egyptians and radicalise its supporters. Instead, they advocate some form of political role for the group.

The Egyptian government and its supporters within the GCC have a different understanding of the Brotherhood, which they see as a terrorist group that seeks the overthrow of their leaders. In their view, the US is dangerously naive about the group’s intentions.

Mr El Sisi has said the Brotherhood will be “finished” in Egypt if he is elected.

This position is behind the $12bn that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have provided to Egypt to stave off a balance of payments crisis and stabilise the economy in a country where poverty has been the root cause of upheaval since the 2011 revolution.

Egypt faces a terrorist threat from militant groups in the Sinai, led by Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, as well as a growing threat on its western border with Libya, where militant Islamists are entrenched and have access to high-powered weapons.

But Cairo also faces urban violence targeting security officials that it blames on the Brotherhood, and which it says justifies the continuing crackdown on the group.

US counterterrorism capabilities are crucial for Egypt’s efforts along its borders, and while assistance is continuing under an exemption to the US law that suspended aid, Washington is less likely to contribute its full resources for fear they would be used against the Brotherhood and other political opponents.

“US assistance to Egypt to address terrorism will be greatly enhanced if Egyptian authorities ease up on the political opposition,” Mr Gold wrote.

Regardless, the US will continue to cooperate with Egypt on security.

An Arab official in Washington said the attempts to release the military aid was prompted more by a desire to pay for pre-existing contracts with US arms firms than any change in the tone of relations with Egypt.

There is disagreement within the US administration about what course it should take with Egypt.

“There is not yet a clear sense of how to proceed because the bigger picture in Egypt is so unclear,” said Amy Hawthorne, a former state department official who worked on US policy after the 2011 Arab uprisings.

“Some in the US might hope Sisi will stabilise the country and take charge of the economy, [while] some within the administration are far more skeptical that Egypt will turn the corner under Sisi.”

There are different views in the administration about how to engage with Mr El Sisi’s government and how to encourage an economic reform agenda, while others argue for limited engagement based on shared security interests “but not make a huge effort beyond that”, said Ms Hawthorne, who is now with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

If the confusion in Washington persists, cooperation with Gulf states to stabilise Egypt will be hampered, and this “would be catastrophic for all”, wrote Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The US and its Gulf allies have “complementary tools at their disposal”, with the latter possessing financial resources that Washington cannot match, and the former having counterterrorism expertise and diplomatic sway internationally.

It is “hard to imagine how Egypt can be successful without the assets that both sides – the Gulf monarchies and the United States – bring to the table”, Mr Alterman said.

* Additional reporting from Agence France-Presse