Event Notes: Egypt and the United States under the Trump Administration

On Thursday, March 30, 2017, POMED and the Arab Center Washington D.C. hosted an event entitled, “Egypt and the United States under the Trump Administration.” The following is a summary of the discussion.

Moderator Joyce Karam of Al Hayat newspaper noted that April 3, the date of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s meeting with U.S. President Donald J. Trump, is almost exactly 40 years after President Jimmy Carter welcomed President Anwar al-Sadat to the White House to promote Egypt-Israel peace negotiations (April 4, 1977).  Clearly much has changed in U.S.-Egypt relations since then.

The first speaker, Bahey Eldin Hassan (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies) offered five main reasons why the al-Sisi regime is less stable than it may appear:

  • Human rights violations are occurring with impunity on a scale unparalleled in modern Egyptian history. The lack of accountability is dangerous. It motivates some victims of the state’s abuse to take matters into their own hands to seek justice and revenge.
  • The public sphere is being closed off systematically to all kinds of peaceful citizen activism. This especially hurts youth:  all-Sisi’s regime has shut down coffee shops and football fan clubs.
  • There is a huge gap between al-Sisi and Egyptian youth, who make up more than 60 percent of the population. This is not just an age gap, but also one of values.
  • Major state institutions, such as the judiciary and Parliament, are eroding. They were semi-independent and semi-functional under the Mubarak regime but now are controlled directly by security agencies and being hollowed out.  Weak institutions undermine state resilience and cannot absorb instability.
  • The salafi-jihadi insurgency is causing deteriorating conditions in the Sinai Peninsula. The insurgency threatens to turn the city of el-Arish into Egypt’s Mosul.

Egyptians will watch the Trump-al-Sisi meeting carefully, Hassan said.  If Trump offers al-Sisi unqualified support, the United States will pay a price sooner or later.

Next, Moataz El Fegiery (Front Line Defenders) described al-Sisi’s crackdown and other challenges in grim detail. Under this regime, young Egyptians who carried out the Tahrir revolution have become “Generation Jail,” as a recent New York Times Magazine article put it.  Human rights defenders are under constant threat.  Grievances among most sectors of society are accumulating rapidly, including among minority groups like Copts and Nubians.  Human rights violations are fueling resentments that the regime cannot easily control.  Popular trust in state institutions such as the judiciary, once highly respected, is collapsing and these institutions are becoming platforms for repression.  Crushing independent civil society and moderate voices risks creating a void that extremists will fill—as has been the case in Syria and Libya.

Egypt is facing its worst security and socio-economic conditions in modern times. Economic discontent is mostly beneath the surface, but it is very real.  Recent small-scale protests such as those over the rising price of bread haven’t grown bigger mainly because Egypt has become a republic of fear. As it confronts these problems, al-Sisi’s regime needs every measure of support it can get, and the White House visit and stamp of U.S. approval is a crucial prize. But unqualified backing from Trump would be simply a green light for al-Sisi to continue his program of repression.

Michele Dunne (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) pointed out that Washington visits by Egyptian presidents used to be an annual affair, but this has not been the case for some time. Many people believe that the U.S.-Egypt relationship soured under President Obama, but in fact ties between Washington and Cairo have been cooling since at least the George W. Bush administration. Bush and Obama both began their presidencies optimistic about U.S.-Egypt ties—and both grew disillusioned and ended their time in office distancing themselves from Cairo. The relationship has deteriorated largely due to Egypt’s repression and unwillingness to democratize. Human rights abuses under al-Sisi are driving despair, radicalization, and terrorism—making them a direct U.S. concern.

Although some in the United States praise al-Sisi’s economic policies, in reality his approach is limited to undertaking certain macroeconomic reforms and launching hugely expensive mega-projects that enrich the military but do nothing to help Egypt’s unemployed youth.  Al-Sisi is not investing in human capital development and job creation—what is urgently needed to put Egypt on a more stable footing.

Trump will learn, just as his predecessors did, that Egypt’s internal problems constrain its ability to be a U.S. ally. Thus it is time to ask, what is the United States really getting out of this relationship? Since the late 1970s, the United States has given Egypt $77 billion dollars in aid for two reasons: to cement Egyptian-Israeli peace, and to assist Egypt’s development. The first objective has been met a long time ago, but the second one has not.  Continued aid and unquestioned support for whoever is running Egypt will not help the United States achieve the outcomes it seeks.

Tom Malinowski (former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration) argued that Egypt has not lived up to its potential and the level of U.S. support doesn’t advance our interests or values. The United States tries to work with Egypt on counterterrorism, but Egypt is a difficult partner. Al-Sisi is contributing nothing to the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria–there are no Egyptians flying F-16s in the sky above Mosul. Moreover, Egypt’s role in Libya and its brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai have been counterproductive. As for Egyptian-Israeli peace, Egypt upholds this because it sees peace as being in its own interest, not because of U.S. aid. U.S. officials were “besieged by reports of disgusting cruelty by Egypt’s security agencies,” Malinowski stated. Perhaps most worrying is al-Sisi’s conflation of his domestic opposition and terrorists. Prison radicalization—in packed, dingy cells where ISIS members have a captive audience to spread radical messages to vulnerable Egyptian youth—is a huge concern. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry tried to get through to al-Sisi on these issues, but found the conversations very frustrating and eventually gave up.

Trump is unlikely to have much more success, and indeed is unlikely to try. The burden of promoting democracy and human rights will fall instead on Congress and U.S. civil society. If Trump wants to achieve a transactional relationship with al-Sisi, at a minimum he could use his leverage to get Americans imprisoned in Egypt released.

The question-and-answer period covered several themes:

  • What does al-Sisi want from Trump? And what should Trump offer?

Dunne argued that al-Sisi has already achieved a primary goal: the visit itself. After the strains under Obama’s presidency, a high-profile visit to Washington is a boost to al-Sisi’s flagging legitimacy and he will try to use it to enhance his prestige within the regime. Another Egyptian goal, an increase in U.S. aid, is unlikely considering Trump’s economic nationalism, and there are hints that his administration may even want to change Egypt’s military grants to loans. Instead, Trump could offer al-Sisi political concessions such the restoration of cash-flow financing privileges to purchase U.S. weapons, a designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, or extradition of certain Egyptians in the United States, a troubling request that al-Sisi may put forward to the White House. Regarding what the United States should do, Dunne said, “we cannot control Egypt—it is about taking a clear stance on what we are for, and what we are against. Sometimes withholding aid can influence Egypt’s actions.” Malinowski stated that a Brotherhood designation may be unlikely.  Not only would it cause pushback from many of our Arab allies, but the Brotherhood doesn’t meet the legal criteria for designation.  He recommended watching closely the Oval Office body language between Trump and al-Sisi, which may be warmer than what we saw during Trump’s meeting with German leader Angela Merkel.  El Fegiery asserted that al-Sisi has exploited the problem of terrorism to attract and maintain support from the West, and he will do the same with Trump.

  • Will al-Sisi continue to get close to Putin?

Dunne contended that it would be hard for al-Sisi to get closer to Russia than he already is, noting their shared worldview and al-Sisi’s admiration for Putin’s autocratic governing style. But Russia cannot replace the United States as Egypt’s key strategic partner. For one thing, Putin simply does not have the cash to finance Egypt’s military purchases as the United States does or to offer favorable economic deals. It’s important to see Egypt’s relationship both with Russia and the United States in context, Dunne explained. Al-Sisi uses his great-power partnerships to increase his prestige within the Egyptian military and society at large and plays great powers off one another. Malinowski reminded the audience that most of the Egyptian military is U.S.-supplied, and “you can’t service F-16s with MiG parts.”

  • What role does repression play in radicalization and jihadist recruitment in Egypt?

According to El Fegiery, radical ideology is a very important ingredient, but recruitment also requires personal grievances on which to feed. A recent study profiling Egyptian youth involved in radical movements revealed a strong desire for revenge among those who had been abused and humiliated by security officials in prison.

  • Do Egypt’s Copts still strongly support al-Sisi?

As security and economic conditions worsen, support is declining, said Hassan.  It was quite striking to see angry Copts gathering outside Botroseya Church in Cairo—the scene of December’s horrific ISIS terrorist attack against worshippers—chanting against al-Sisi’s regime and attacking famous pro-regime media figures in the crowd.