A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 30, 2012

Crunch Time for US-Egyptian Relations

I can think of few moments since the first Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty when US-Egyptian relations, and the fate of US aid, have seemed so much in question. A high-level military delegation is in the US to discuss aid, led by Maj. Gen. Mohammed El-Assar, the Deputy Defense Minister for US Affairs and a member of SCAF, but he will no doubt have seen this morning's Washington Post report that the US Embassy in Cairo is sheltering in place in the Embassy compound several US employees of NGOs who have been forbidden to leave Egypt due to the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs. As everyone knows by now, one of these is the International Republican Institute's Sam LaHood,who happens to be the son of US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a rare Republican in the Obama Cabinet (and an Arab-American as well, to add to the mix). Oh, and just to make General El-Assar's visit even more challenging, over the weekend Egypt's key Washington lobbyists announced they were quitting. Hello, we're here for our annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Really, you're upset about something? Actually, General El-Assar, whom I've met on earlier visits, knows the US scene rather well, and I doubt if he has many illusions about the task before him. Whether his fellow SCAF generals understand the hole they're in (at the moment, though, they're still digging) is a lot less clear.

I know of course that the US aid relationship is unpopular in the Egyptian street, and I also know that some in the Army may feel the aid package is sacrosanct, the Army's "payment" for keeping the peace with Israel. But both the Administration and Congress still have to approve that every year. The Egyptian economy is reeling, the 10-12% of it that is tourism based is in serious doubt, and US military aid is now in jeopardy. And without the US, hopes for IMF and World Bank assistance could also be in jeopardy.

SCAF's out-of-touch, blundering approach to governance has rarely been more apparent. A breach with the US would perhaps be popular, but the Egyptian military's own self-interest would be the first victim. And if they think they can replace it with Gulf funding, they might want to look at the record of Gulf monetary pledges versus actual funds delivered.

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