Analysis

Egypt Courts U.S. Jews in Effort to Prevent Trump Aid Cuts

The two nations enjoy close military collaboration, agree on the need to block Iran and sign gas deals. But the gap between cooperation and normalization is large

FILE PHOTO- In this October 24, 2017 photo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends a military ceremony in the courtyard at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, France.
Charles Platiau/AP

Egypt’s Urgent Matters Court is scheduled to hear on January 20 a petition to end the constitution’s two-term limit for the presidency. 
“Eight years is too short a time to tackle the challenges Egypt faces,” states the petition filed in the Cairo court by an Egyptian lawyer.

If the court approves the proposed amendment to Article 140 of the constitution, it would go to the parliament for a vote, followed by a public referendum.

A presidential election is not due for another three years, but the petition is already raising a storm. Some 1,000 public figures have signed a counter-petition demanding that the court and parliament reject the amendment. 

They say it is tantamount to “betraying the Arab Spring revolution and delivering a blow to democracy.” But political opposition is a hollow term in view of the complete influence wielded in parliament by Sissi’s supporters.

>> WATCH: CBS explains how Egypt tried to kill a '60 Minutes' Sissi interview over Israel comment

However, the real threat to Sissi comes from another legislature — the U.S. House of Representatives. An article , the American one, a few thousands of kilometers away. An article in an appropriations act that passed in the House and is also supported in the Senate would slash over $300 million from the annual $1.3 billion aid package to Egypt. The demand, currently delayed by the government shutdown, is based on the violation of human rights in Egypt, the imprisonment of some 15 American citizens in Egyptian prisons and Egypt’s refusal to pay some $500,000 for the medical treatment of April Corley, a professional roller skater whose tour bus was bombed in Egypt’s Western Desert in 2015 in an errant Egyptian helicopter attack. Egypt maintains the tourists entered a war zone between Egyptian forces and terror organizations without coordination.

Also, a year and a half ago U.S. President Donald Trump withheld $195 million in military aid over suspicions that Egypt had violated trading sanctions on North Korea as well as a draconian Egyptian law restricting the activities of human rights organizations operating in the country. In July Trump released the funds, citing “steps Egypt has taken over the last year in response to specific U.S. concerns.” The trade with North Korea was stopped, but the organizations’ situation worsened.

Protesters stand behind a banner reading "Israel criminal, Egypt accomplice," Paris, France, April 2017.
Thomas Samson/AFP

Before the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, no U.S. official demanded that Saudi Arabia improve the status of women in the kingdom. Turkey was subjected to a few sanctions that led to the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, but it was not sanctioned for the arrests and persecution of journalists or civil rights activists.

The U.S. administration treated Egypt with elastic tolerance too, as long as no American citizens were involved. The human rights reports submitted by the State Department every year about Egypt are met with official responses of denial and rage. Egypt is familiar with this annual ritual but it seems that this year, mainly due to the expected cutback, it decided to take a step in the customary direction. This doesn’t mean new legislation or releasing political prisoners, estimated by human rights organizations in the tens of thousands, but hiring an American lobbying and PR firm to improve Egypt’s image in the United States.

In view of the American threats and pressures, one can understand Sissi’s statements in an interview broadcast on the CBS program “60 Minutes” on Sunday. He denied that there were political prisoners in Egypt. He did not order the injury or killing of demonstrators, and when Scott Pelly said the Egyptian president’s critics “claim that you have blood on your hands,” Sissi replied, “I can’t ask Egyptians to forget their rights or the police and civilians who died.”

Sissi also revealed for the first time that there is close military cooperation between Egypt and Israel in the war against terror groups in Sinai. He even said Egyptian fighter planes often cross the border to Israel as part of their activity in Sinai. The military cooperation with Israel was no secret to Egyptians, who had read about it in a number of media outlets long before the interview, but a statement made by the president is unprecedented.

This cooperation isn’t limited to military matters. Israel exercises its influence in the U.S. Congress for Egypt’s benefit, and much like Netanyahu lobbied for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he also acted to prevent the slashing of the aid to Egypt. Presumably this time too AIPAC will be activated to persuade Congress not to approve the cutback precisely for the reasons Sissi mentioned in the interview.

But an abyss lies between the military cooperation and normalization between Egypt and Israel. Just ask Mona Prince, a former English literature professor at Suez University, who was slapped with a lawsuit for “denying the Muslim state’s values” after meeting Israeli Ambassador David Govrin in the Cairo embassy. The suit, filed by a number of lawyers, described the meeting as “a crime and collaboration with the enemy of the Arab world and Egypt.”

Ten days after meeting Govrin, Prince said in an interview to Israel’s Arabic TV channel Makan 33 that her meeting with Govrin was intended to advance cultural normalization between Israel and Egypt. She was expelled from the Egyptian Writers Union for violating the ban on normalization with Israel, an amendment approved by the Egyptian administration.

Israel enjoys Egypt’s brokerage services in Gaza, agrees with it on the need to block Iran and Israeli gas companies sign agreements to export gas via Egypt. So Israel can argue this is the best one can get from the peace agreement at this time. The Israeli participation in the film festival, the international book fair in Cairo or cooperation in sports and journalism are negligible compared to the military cooperation. Not to mention the infringement on human rights.

It seems we can live in peace without normalization, without Egyptian recognition that Israel is the Jewish nation state, with media incitement against the Zionist enemy and with a boycott on Israeli products, apart from gas.