Is the U.S. Losing Its Influence in Egypt?

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.Credit: Reuters

“The United States should demonstrate restraint and deal with demonstrators by American and international standards.” This seemingly sarcastic Egyptian response to the way police in Ferguson, Missouri dispersed protesters is not surprising, given the tension that has developed between the U.S. administration and Egypt following the American rebuke of Egypt over its human rights policies. Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman of the U.S. State Department, agreed that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is a “democratic transition leader,” but she sounded like the admission had been dipped in acid.

“What we expect is the process that’s laid out by Egypt’s constitution, that is laid out for how Egypt should be governed, is adhered to, and that the government should take additional steps to allow for dissent, to allow for people to come out in the streets and make their voices heard if they’re doing so peacefully,” she said.

A few days before Harf’s remarks, the heads of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson, attempted to enter Egypt to present a 195-page report they put together on events in Egypt a year ago, in which more than 800 people were killed (in addition to some 300 others killed in the following months). In August 2013 the army dispersed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood by force. This August, the Egyptians barred the two human rights officials on the grounds that they had not requested or received entry visas. It only shows that such organizations think they are above the law, the official Egyptian explanation stated.

U.S. hesitancy

The Human Rights Watch report comes on top of the hesitant stance of the U.S. administration, which refrained from recognizing the legitimacy of the Sissi regime until presidential elections were held. Despite the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry came to Cairo to congratulate Sissi on his election, the Obama administration is still suspending a portion of the military aid that has been promised to Egypt.

In Egypt, what’s considered American interference in its internal affairs has a price. Not only was Washington surprised by the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza, but up to now, Sissi has also refrained from visiting the United States, although he has been invited several times. He preferred Russia and President Vladimir Putin as the destination for his first trip outside the Middle East.

It wasn’t a courtesy call. Sissi, who visited Moscow more than a year ago when he was still defense minister, had laid the foundation for a Russian military aid package, and now he was back to bring it to fruition. An agreement was signed for the supply of MiG- 29 airplanes, advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, Mi-35 helicopters and anti-ship weapons systems, as well as light weaponry and ammunition. Last week it was also reported that Russia will sell Egypt S-300 missiles that were initially destined for Syria. On Friday, a Russian delegation arrived in Cairo to wrap up discussions on the arms deal, which apparently will be funded by the United Arab Emirates.

True, this is a long-term transaction that will begin going into effect only in another three years. And true, the range of weapons systems and introduction of systems from Russia will require a run-in period, adjustment and a change in teaching and combat approaches. But the very existence of the expanding military connection with Russia is raising some eyebrows in Washington. Is Egypt turning towards Russia with the intention of playing former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s game? Is the United States beginning to lose its influence in Egypt?

It’s too early to say that Egypt is changing direction. Its dependence on the United States is still great, and not only due to the billion dollars in annual financial assistance it gets. Saudi Arabia has transferred to Egypt much larger sums, nearly five times that amount, in the past year alone. The alliance with the United States is based on the understanding that it will continue to provide Egypt international backing both at international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and on diplomatic issues.

It seems, though, that Sissi is trying to rid Egypt of its sense of dependence on the United States and broaden its room for diplomatic maneuver. Unlike Israel, Sissi has other options in the Middle East and he doesn’t want to be in a situation in which “foul-ups” on “marginal” issues such as human rights threaten his agenda. His priorities are the rehabilitation of Egypt’s economy and the war against terrorism, whether the source of this terror is radical groups in Sinai or the Muslim Brotherhood, which is deemed a terrorist organization.

Sissi shows his skills

In the three months since Sissi began his term as president, he has demonstrated diplomatic and political leadership skills, to the point where some observers compare him to his bitter rival, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The war in Gaza has given Sissi an opportunity to make clear that Egypt’s interests take precedence over any Arab, Islamic or international agenda. For his part, Gaza can go to hell if the Hamas leadership doesn’t understand who is holding its lifeline.

Sissi has already blocked most of Hamas’ smuggling routes. Sinai, however, is another story. Based on his interpretation, the suspension of American military aid harms his ability to fight terror in Sinai and the Western Desert, and therefore he has to find an alternative source for his military needs.

But at the same time, he will not damage his plans to rebuild Egypt’s economy. If Russia provides a portion of Egypt’s military needs and the United States continues to back the country in the international markets, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait provide assistance in funding development plans, Sissi’s agenda can be carried out at relatively inexpensive diplomatic cost.

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