By Karan Kochhar
It did not take long for hopes of stability in Egypt to fade after General Abdul Al-Sisi took control from Morsi in 2014. Just two months into power, the “pro-democratic” regime passed a law banning any demonstration without the government’s consent.
The de facto ban restricted free speech, undermining the new regime’s diligence to the democratic practice. Al Sisi was quick to crack down on any dissenting citizen without giving any chance of a fair trial. Instances of arrests and mass trials of supporters of Muslim Brotherhood garnered international condemnation for the new regime.
Tensions between the US and Egypt
Egypt is a significant ally of the US in the Middle East. However, ignorance of a proper judicial process and various counts of human rights abuse have troubled Egypt’s relationship with the US. Last week, the Trump administration took a bold decision to cut $95.7 million in aid. They also decided to withhold another $195 million in military aid until the US sees progress in human rights conditions.
The aid cut is the US’s response to the passage of a draconian law regulating NGOs operating in Egypt. The new law requires NGOs are required to work according to the State’s developmental needs. The law also introduces jail term for non-compliance.
The Obama administration in 2015 has also frozen aid following instances of abuse of human rights. However, normal ties had resumed a few months later. Common interests have always taken precedence in the US-Egypt relationship, despite continuous signs of deplorable human right conditions.
Why is Egypt so important?
Former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made two visits to Cairo after a Russian airliner was downed in Sinai. The geographical location of Sinai makes it important and elevates Egypt to a significant position in the Middle East. The region is bound by Suez Canal to its west, the Mediterranean to its north and Gaza, Israel and Gulf of Aqaba to the east. Further, the Gulf of Aqaba serves as the sole access point for Israel to the Red Sea. Cumulatively, about 8% of the world trade flows through the canal, including 3% of the world oil supplies.
The ISIS-affiliated extremist group, Sinai Province, has used the peninsular region to orchestrate sophisticated attacks in different parts of Egypt. But the most pressing concern is the transfer of weapons and ideology between Egypt and the rest of the Middle East via the porous border. The Sinai province fighters reportedly “assisted” the Libyans in liberating weapons from the military and smuggled them back into Egypt. Additionally, an investigation revealed that the serial number of weapons captured from Sinai province fighters match those acquired by Gaddafi from Russia.
Al-Sisi, in cooperation with the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, has taken lead in tightening the border. However, Al-Sisi cannot rely solely on Haftar, who is himself fighting indigenous extremists and the Libyan PM. If the border is left unattended, the ISIS might grow stronger over time to destabilise regional players.
A wishy-washy deal?
Egypt is the second largest recipient of American largesse, receiving $1.3 billion annually in aid. Out of the total military aid in question, $65.7 million is redirected to other regional priorities. The remaining $195 million is through which Washington hopes to exercise control over Egypt’s regional policies. The United States Congress will release the aid only if the Secretary of State certifies that Egypt is taking actions towards achieving democracy.
However, instead of specifying criteria, the administration has noted a set of three concerns. Firstly, it urges Cairo to abolish the new law regulating NGOs in Egypt. Secondly, it asks Cairo to be “enthusiastic” towards counter-terrorism initiatives. Lastly, it asks Cairo to stop “cosying up” to North Korea by providing military benefits and hosting guest workers. Though the intentions of United States are legitimate, the vagueness in terms reflects a policy paralysis on the US side.
The US is watching over
Due to the continuous human right violations, Al-Sisi has lost the support of the Egyptian population. His latest act to get another shot at Presidency was to repress his political opponents, such as Khaled Ali.
Though the Al-Sisi-Trump relationship has proved fruitful with several cooperative agreements, Al-Sisi should acknowledge that the Americans are dealing with Egypt and not him. The Presidency of Egypt is ultimately replaceable. However, the situation for the US is not that simple or manipulable. Any economic or political failure in Egypt would result in a vacuum of power. History shows that this has not served well—reminiscences of the Arab spring are still fresh in the minds of Egyptians.
The aid cut was a “balancing act”, a fore warning to Egypt to get their act together and stop acting as a façade of democracy. It will not hinder Al-Sisi’s acts, but it will serve as a reminder that the US is watching and has not given him a free hand.
Featured Image Source: VisualHunt
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius