By: Abdelrahman Amr and Michael Matthiesen
In the second part of an Egyptian Streets article series under the name of East-West Chitchat that aims to spark increased dialogue between Americans and Egyptians. Abdelrahman Amr and Michael Matthiesen explore the relations between Egypt- the United States highlighting the events of cutting military aid over concerns on Egypt’s human rights record and its effect of the diplomatic relations between both countries.
Pragmatism is a genuinely American social philosophy and since the formation of the libertarian ideological charged Tea Party in 2009, many Americans have been questioning the effectiveness of foreign aid and its role in serving American interests. This pragmatic libertarian form of questioning has given rise to the political careers of politicians like Senator Rand Paul and President Donald Trump who call for a cut to foreign aid especially when Americans, at home, are suffering.
Those who are supporters of foreign aid argue that views like the Senator’s and President’s are misinformed. Foreign aid has had a tremendous impact on perpetuating and enforcing American interests abroad, by empowering America’s allies, and in the case of Egypt, making allies. Nonetheless, those who make an argument that doesn’t appeal to the common American voters’ pragmatic reflex will only find their argument falling flat. With that said, this article will take a pragmatic perspective while discussing the arguments of the American voter.
In August 2017, the US Senate proposed cutting $US 195 million from US aid to Egypt, citing human rights violations in accordance with Leahy Laws, named after current US Senator Leahy. Human Rights Watch has been very critical of the al-Sisi’s government, accusing him of returning to Mubarak era styles of torture – something that the 2011 Revolution fought to end.
Human rights violations in Egypt range from arbitrary arrests and detentions, excessive use of force, enforced disappearances to unfair trials among many others.
It is no wonder then that Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war and the strongest voice against torture in the US Senate, recently joined the chorus of U.S Senators speaking out on Egypt and criticized Sisi for lurching Egypt “dangerously backward” through his use of torture, and repression of political activism.
Since the Camp David Accords, the US has been giving an aid package to Egypt that Egypt has used for national development since President Sadat. The decision to cut a portion of both economic and military aid came as a shock to Egypt given that bilateral relations between the two countries significantly improved as President Donald Trump assumed office. Even during the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the US position of waiving the human rights conditions on foreign aid by pointing to Egypt’s deteriorating security situation.
The retained aid, which amounts to $US 290 million, at this point is merely symbolic since it does not have a huge impact on the Egyptian economy. Consequently, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which described the US cut in aid as “…poor judgment of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades.” This statement was made realizing the political responsibility Egypt has and that major responses will affect the region in a way that goes beyond the decision to cut the aid.
Despite all their Fire and Fury, Egypt’s politicians have failed to address the American voters’ most pragmatic question: how does giving money to Egypt serve American interests? History shows the aid to Egypt has protected American interests immensely. Egypt was the first country to strike a peace deal with Israel due to the aid, and the resulting economic benefit to the Egyptian economy has made Egyptian consumers a reliable purchaser of American goods. The Egyptian military is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East, which has made Egypt an excellent ally to have in fighting terrorism and promoting American interests in the region. According to Tim Rieser, senior foreign policy aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, it is in the U.S. interest to continue providing aid to Egypt because any country of Egypt’s size in an unstable region like the Middle East is one that the U.S wants to have “the best possible relationship with” for strategic reasons, both militarily and economically.
However, according to Rieser, the proposed cuts were made because Egypt’s government hasn’t addressed US human rights concerns, especially as the Egyptian government has adopted increasing autocratic policies. “The response [from the Egyptian government] has been very disappointing, and the situation has gotten progressively worse”. Rieser argues that the aid is not a blank check and that the U.S is trying to show through the proposed cuts that it wants a serious partner in Egypt, which requires addressing fundamental issues that the U.S is rightly concerned about.
In order to resolve the situation, Rieser argues that the US government expects Egypt to address issues such as the NGO laws, criminal cases against American NGO workers, the conduct of military activities in Sinai, more tolerance for political parties, and the cases of Egyptian-Americans who are believed to be unjustly imprisoned, as well as other human rights cases.
Earlier in May last year, President Sisi announced the new NGO law that was heavily criticized as it constrains civil society in Egypt and threatens to limit and criminalize the activities of different rights groups, which can result in suspending such groups in the future. The new law aims to prevent NGOs from taking part in any actions that have to do with the country’s national security, something that rights groups considered to be unclear and can be used against them in different ways.
“There are many issues, and Senator Leahy is looking for serious responses by the Egyptian government to these concerns, not excuses or blanket denials,” he added.
When asked if previous reports that indicated Egyptian collaboration with North Korea during a time of tensions between Trump and Kim Jong-un was one of the issues that reflected on the decision to cut the aid, Rieser confirmed saying: “I do think that the decision to withhold a portion of the assistance was in part related to that issue, but it was not the only issue.”
In general, and speaking to American citizens concerned about their country giving financial support to other countries, Rieser confronted such views by pragmatically arguing that foreign aid comprises only one percent of the federal budget, a minuscule amount compared to funding for other programs. Most importantly, the aid furthers American economic interests by investing in the development of countries’ capabilities to improve standards of living and markets for U.S. exports and to address global problems that can’t possibly be solved by the U.S alone.
“Anyone who thinks we live on an island and can somehow protect ourselves from all the threats and forces that affect us, not to mention that an increasing share of our economy is based on exports, really doesn’t understand the world today. Most problems can’t be solved on our own — it is by building alliances, partnerships and through cooperation,” he concluded.