Mona Eltahawy | Freelance Egyptian and American journalist based in New York and Cairo
The presidents of Egypt and the United States are a match made in the hell of activists’ nightmares—thin-skinned, authoritarian populists who gain political traction from a “war on terrorism” that, to their followers, justifies a myriad of abuses.
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general turned president, is a reminder that the military has ruled Egypt in one form or another for over six decades. As for Donald Trump, three generals—the defense secretary, the White House chief of staff, and the national security adviser—are effectively babysitting the commander in chief, in an unprecedented display of military power over the executive in modern U.S. presidential history. Moreover, my fellow compatriots—both Egyptian and American—are alarmingly enamored of their armed forces.
As someone who splits her year between Egypt and the U.S., I see a future for both of my countries in which the U.S. becomes more like Egypt, leaving little room for American criticism of Egypt (though truth be told, the U.S. has historically paid little more than lip service to human rights violations by the Egyptian regime). Remember, five successive U.S. administrations—Democrat and Republican—supported the 29-year dictatorship of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Like a politician speaking from both sides of its mouth, the U.S. recently suspended aid to Egypt, only to have Trump soften that blow with a friendly phone call to Sisi (whom the U.S. president once called “a fantastic guy”). The suspension of aid will remain an aberration for as long as Sisi understands—and Trump made clear—that the U.S. president will not lecture him on human rights. The Sisi regime will continue to kill Egyptians in extrajudicial ways—there were 61 such killings in July alone, more than double the total over the previous six months. And Egyptians will continue to disappear in their hundreds.
Those crimes are unlikely to upset the generals who babysit both my countries.
Jon Alterman | Senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy, and director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is in the midst of transition. While some Egyptian officials believe strongly that President Donald Trump’s election will restore warm and close ties, the future is likely to unfold differently. Close U.S.-Egyptian relations were forged in the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. Middle East policy was centered on blocking Soviet influence in the Middle East and forging an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Egypt was a vital component of both. U.S. regional policy is now focused on countering Iran’s influence and fighting terrorism. Egypt is not central to either struggle.
In addition, decades of war in the Middle East, combined with reduced reliance on Middle Eastern oil, have dimmed Americans’ appetite for deep and sustained engagement in the region. Egypt is hardly an exemplar of what such engagement can do, as four decades of multi-billion dollar U.S. annual assistance to the country have not built a powerful fighting force, engendered a vibrant economy, or created much popular warmth toward the United States.
The U.S. partnership did not create a successful Egypt, and it probably can’t. The country is simply too big and its challenges too complicated. Egyptians will have to build it. A successful Egypt, however, would be much more likely to attract a more meaningful U.S. partnership. In American thinking, that would require an agile and effective military, a robust private sector, and a vibrant civil society. That does not describe Egypt today, nor does it describe the society that Egypt’s leaders seem determined to build.
Amr Hamzawy | Senior research scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University
Current tensions between the United States and Egypt are bound to continue. These tensions, which manifested themselves in recent cuts in the U.S. military and economic aid package to Egypt, result from three factors.
First, the Egyptian government has not suspended its military and trade ties with North Korea, despite reported criticism from the Trump administration.
Second, the human rights track record of the Egyptian government has deteriorated massively since the rise to power of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. In the face of unprecedented human rights violations, the U.S. State Department and a powerful bipartisan group of U.S. senators have pushed to introduce cuts to the military and economic aid package. A few months ago Sisi ratified a draconian law on non-governmental organizations tailored to suffocate Egyptian civil society, which inflamed matters further.
And third, differences between the Trump administration and the Egyptian government regarding the ongoing wars in Libya and Syria have also contributed to the current tensions. The Egyptian government supports the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar and the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whereas the Trump White House mistrusts both, to put it mildly.
David Schenker | Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute
Coming so close on the heels of the seemingly excellent White House meeting between President Donald Trump and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi last May, the Trump administration’s suspension of $300 million in foreign assistance undoubtedly came as a shock to Cairo. Truth be told, however, the bark was worse than the bite: Egypt is likely to eventually receive the lion’s share of this funding—$195 million. Still, the decision does reflect a prevailing feeling in the U.S. Congress and among many in the State Department of discomfort with the deplorable human rights situation in Egypt.
While human rights advocates and some in the bureaucracy in Washington continue to want to leverage the aid or penalize Cairo for its human rights record, other policymakers have become inured, resigned to an unchanging Egypt largely impervious to U.S. pressures. And given the state of the region, can the U.S. now afford a deterioration in ties with Egypt? In any event, based on the Trump administration’s outreach to Sisi, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, human rights are not a high priority for it.
This administration is not looking for a fight with Egypt. Meanwhile, Egypt has nowhere else to go. Longtime friends, sometimes “frenemies,” the United States and Egypt, notwithstanding this suspension of aid, are likely to see a status quo prevailing in their relationship.