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Egypt Eyes U.S. Foreign Policy Changes After Midterms

Gen Mattis and Gen Sisi last year in Washington
Gen Mattis and Gen Sisi last year in Washington
Sharif Abdel Kouddous

CAIRO — The Democratic Party chalked up victories across the United States in the midterm elections on November 6, gaining control of the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years. And even if the Republicans still hold control of the Senate, the outcome of the midterms breaks up the Republican monopoly in Washington and has dealt a blow to President Donald Trump midway through his first term in office.

But what are the ramifications on US foreign policy? And, more specifically, what do the midterm election results mean for Egypt?

On the one hand, Egypt is rarely the subject of discussion on Capitol Hill anymore, and there is a general resignation and acceptance of the status quo. On the other, the country's retreat from its historical leadership role in the region, combined with a renewed critical focus on its Gulf patrons, like Saudi Arabia, and an increasing skepticism in Washington of Egypt's value as a partner, particularly from Democrats, may translate into greater scrutiny.

For decades, Egypt has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington, a relationship anchored in the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Egypt's position as a strategic Middle East partner for the US has consistently trumped any concerns about democracy or human rights, and both the White House and Congress have continued to back Egypt regardless of which party is in control.

The bulk of US funding to Egypt comes in the form of an annual $1.3 billion military assistance package. While this aid has stayed relatively constant in dollar terms, it has become increasingly conditioned.

Since 2012, Congress has passed appropriations legislation that withholds military aid unless the Secretary of State certifies the country is taking various steps to support democracy and human rights. Even though the State Department's own assessments of Egypt have acknowledged widespread abuses such as unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, successive Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State have regularly issued national security waivers to override these concerns and continue the funding.

Trump is basically for Sisi at every turn.

Over the past several years, there have been some fluctuations. In 2013, President Obama suspended the supply of some military equipment in the wake of the Rabaa massacre, before restoring it again less than two years later. President Trump froze some funding in 2017, citing human rights issues and Egypt's relationship with North Korea, only to lift most restrictions earlier this year. Egypt remains the second largest recipient of military assistance from the United States after Israel.

Although military aid has continued to flow into the country, economic funding to Egypt has been cut drastically. Over the past two decades, economic aid to Egypt has been reduced by over 90%, from $833 million in 1998 to a request of just $75 million for 2019, the lowest amount since the late 1970s.

"There's been a long-term trend of diminishing congressional support for the US relationship with Egypt," says Michelle Dunne, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official who closely follows Egypt. "These midterm elections will reinforce that trend."

With control of one of the chambers of Congress, Democrats are looking to push back against a range of President Trump's domestic and foreign policies, including his stance on the Middle East.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in his own consulate last month has thrust Trump's cosy relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman into the spotlight, as well as US involvement in the disastrous war in Yemen.

While Egypt has largely fallen off the radar in Washington, a more critical focus on America's Gulf allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — particularly by Democrats, may color perceptions of Egypt.

"Egypt couldn't be in the news less than it already is," says Joshua Stacher, an associate professor of political science at Kent State University and the author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria (2012). "But there's starting to be a bundle of policies that are being discredited because of Trump's embrace of them and Egypt's definitely in there. Trump is basically for Sisi at every turn."

US military aid to Egypt accounts for nearly a quarter of all US military assistance worldwide.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been Sisi's strongest defenders behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, and their once-influential private lobbying efforts may now carry less weight. "The Saudis and Emiratis have been privately going to members of Congress and members of the administration, trying to persuade them not to put pressure on Sisi. If these people and their approach is called into question, they might not be as effective," Dunne says.

While analysts agree that Egypt is not a hot-button issue anymore, US military aid to Egypt accounts for nearly a quarter of all US military assistance worldwide, rendering it an important funding consideration nevertheless.

In recent years, there has been more criticism of Egypt in the Senate than in the House. Democrats like Patrick Leahy and Chris Murphy and Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain have all been critical of President Sisi. Yet with the Republicans retaining control of the Senate, there will likely be little change toward Egypt in the upper chamber.

"In the Senate, it will more or less be the status quo," Miller says. "Some will continue being skeptical of Egypt's value as a partner, but we'll see no dramatic change."

It's in the House where a lot of fresh faces are coming in and many old ones are heading out.

One of the Republican incumbents that lost his seat to a Democratic challenger, California representative Dana Rohrabacher, happened to be President Sisi's biggest cheerleader in Congress. Rohrabacher has described Sisi as "a defender of the good things we believe in." In 2014, he formed the Egypt Caucus to further relations between the United States and Egypt. He has also met with Sisi several times, including traveling to Cairo in February 2017 to bolster ties between the two countries following President Trump's inauguration.

Several newly elected Democrats entering Capitol Hill armed with years of experience in national security and diplomacy are looking to challenge President Trump on foreign policy. Chief among them is Tom Malinowski, who defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in the race for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District.

Malinowski was the Washington director of Human Rights Watch from 2001 to 2013, where he was a leading advocate for ending the US use of torture and black sites. He joined the Obama administration in 2013 as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Last year, he delivered a scathing assessment of President Sisi in his testimony before a Senate subcommittee hearing on US aid to Egypt.

"In the House, you will have a number of new Democrats who are experienced in foreign policy, including myself, who are not likely to accept the argument that a dictator is necessary for stability," Malinowski says. "I would characterize President Sisi's policies as disastrous from the standpoint of human rights and America's national security. Egypt has done absolutely nothing for the United States that justifies the provision of billions of dollars of military aid."

The Congressmember-elect tells Mada Masr he plans to be a vocal advocate for human rights on Capitol Hill and says he believes there will be greater scrutiny of Washington's relationship with Cairo in the House of Representatives.

"I make no promises, but I do believe that there is likely to be greater skepticism, in part because you have a few more people entering the Congress who care about human rights and because the Egyptian government has failed to demonstrate what benefit the United States gets from this relationship," he says. "I would also expect a much more critical focus on the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and that may have some implications for how Egypt is viewed."

For Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, radical changes in Washington's policy on Egypt are unlikely because of longstanding fears of instability. "But what I think is that it's definitely a more negative context and environment for Sisi in Washington."

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