The Trump administration is picking a fight with Egypt, denying $95 million in aid and delaying another $195 million because Egypt is failing to make progress on respecting human rights and democracy. The Egyptian foreign ministry released a statement arguing this reflects “poor judgment of the strategic relationship” between the United States and Egypt. More likely it reflects poor judgment in leaving hostile State Department personnel on staff and allowing them to set policy when no one is looking.
Whether a calculated rebuff of Egyptian President el-Sisi, or a bumbling misstep, this is definitely a poor idea. In diplospeak, this is “not productive.”
In truth, a closer look at the situation inside Egypt shows the kind of trap which has been set for its government… not only by hostile actors, but by circumstances. This is because the holder of political power before el-Sisi was the Muslim Brotherhood, under Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood won an election but then tried to rewrite the Constitution to give itself virtually unlimited powers. The people demonstrated against this and the Army under el-Sisi stepped in. The result is that the current government was created by a democratic movement in an undemocratic process to undo an undemocratic power grab by a democratically elected government. Confusing, to say the least. This makes it complicated for Americans to go all in for el-Sisi, but for right now he is the right man in the right job. Write the check!
The esteemed editor-in-chief of this journal, Mister Tyrrell, is like me a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. This think tank, founded and led by Dr. Herbert London, is on the cutting edge of foreign policy and energy policy. It is viewed as an invaluable resource by the U.S. Congress as well as the legislative bodies of other countries around the world. Some of the top policy and government people are fellow fellows, including former CIA head James Woolsey and the nonpareil Betsy McCaughey, who was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York in the 1990s after she almost singlehandedly stopped Hillarycare in its tracks.
We recently met in Washington, D.C. with seven Members of the Egyptian Parliament, including several committee heads. Most spoke good English, but an interpreter came along to help us understand the few who did not. They were on a tour of 14 Members trying to make their case to influencers of policy in the current administration. Seven went to meet Congresspeople and seven came to us, so they took the meeting very seriously. I was very impressed by their frankness.
In the course of the two hours I learned a great deal, from the unstated premises as well as explicit statements. The body language and interactions were also very revealing.
The three people I focused on most were Dr. Karim Salem, on the Planning and Budget Committee, Dr. Gamal Shiha who is Chairman of the Education and Scientific Research Committee, and Dalia Youssef of the Foreign Relations Committee. Dalia was the only woman without the Muslim head covering, and she was the mouthiest and most flamboyant person in the room, although her jewelry was less flashy than the bling on the woman who headed the Islamic Studies department.
Here are the insights I gleaned, in no particular order.
1) They are all convinced the Muslim Brotherhood must be named a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The London Center has been promoting a bill to that effect since 2013. It was originally sponsored by Michele Bachman and a senator who has also since left, and is now sponsored by two Cubans — Mario Diaz-Ballart and Ted Cruz.
2) The most intellectual member, a college professor who represents the wealthiest suburb of Cairo, said: “Any member of the Brotherhood is ready to pick up a weapon. If they have not, it is only because they have not yet received the order.”
He cited one of the demonstrations to prop up the Morsi regime, in which physicians and other professionals brought weapons to the scene.
(My argument is that the United States policy community feels trapped into opposing this resolution, because there is no other credible opposition party in Egypt. The idea of criminalizing the main opposition party is anathema to Americans, because it is a favored tactic of authoritarians and totalitarians. If an “Islamic Peace Party” would emerge in Egypt, establish firm party institutions and attract 15-20% of the electorate, our people might see clearer to ostracizing the Brotherhood.)
3) The one member who was a Coptic Christian said openly, “I am very happy we have the strategic cooperation with Israel. Without it I do not believe we have the resources to control the border with Gaza.”
4) They believe that part of what got Qatar started as funders of terrorism was a desire to stick a thumb in Egypt’s eye after Mubarak arbitrated a conflict between Qatar and a neighbor, and resolved it in favor of the neighbor. So besides the regional dynamic, there is a Qatar vs. Egypt subtext.
5) When we asked why they think Saudi Arabia and the others were finally willing to move against Qatar, they cited a number of points. Most interestingly, they said the King was given an intelligence file showing that Qatar had been actively trying to destabilize the area of Saudi Arabia that borders with Qatar.
I asked, “Who gave them that file?” They said, “We don’t know.” I think that means they suspect Trump brought it with him on his visit to the Middle East.
6) They were insistent that the Christians in Egypt are not seen as “minorities” (Dalia said, “Since when is 20-25% of the population classified as a minority?”) but that they are all Egyptians. One of them added, “So are the Jews. We have two hundred.”
To sum up, we saw democrats in action, up close and personal. One little snippet of dialogue tells you all you need to know. One parliamentarian said that el-Sisi was the first leader of Egypt to appropriate public funds to rebuild churches damaged by terrorism. He was countered by another arguing that Gamal Abdel Nasser had contributed $150,000 to constructing the main Egyptian Orthodox cathedral in 1964. The third man into the discussion split the difference: yes, Nasser paid that from public funds but he hid the outlay inside an omnibus national infrastructure bill.
President Trump, write the check!