Egypt must play by President Trump's rules on North Korea
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Cairo’s rulers considered Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE’s victory in last year’s U.S. presidential election to be good news. The Egyptian government had hoped for a mutually beneficial relationship with the incoming administration and believed that Trump would treat the nation favorably, potentially even increasing Egypt’s $1.3 billion worth of annual military aid and restoring its preferred method of financing arms purchases, known as “cash flow.”

Therefore, the recent decisions by the Trump administration to cut more than $95 million in economic and military aid to Egypt and delay an additional $195 million in military assistance dealt a significant shock to the Egyptian government. The decision resulted in part from serious traditional U.S. concerns regarding Egypt’s human rights record and a growing weariness over the nation’s ongoing military cooperation with North Korea.

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Recent reports indicate that the ongoing military cooperation between Egypt and North Korea facilitated the Trump administration’s adoption of punitive measures against Cairo and threats of more to come. The United States is increasingly anxious about Egypt’s dealings with North Korea, according to an Egyptian diplomatic source. Washington has privately called upon Cairo to sever its military ties with Pyongyang, which date back to the 1960s.

 

In her Aug. 24 briefing, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “As it pertains to DPRK and Egypt, we continue to work with our allies and partners. Egypt is one of them. We have conversations with Egypt and many other countries around the world about the need to isolate DPRK, and we do that because we recognize that countries around the world that do business with North Korea enable money to go into North Korea’s illegal nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. And that is a huge concern of ours and it’s a huge concern to the international community as well.”

Washington has long voiced displeasure with Cairo’s troubling record on civil liberties, and it recently voiced its frustration over a new Egyptian law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, the unprecedented and growing crackdown on dissidents, Islamists and others has, for some members of Congress, reached unacceptable levels. In law and practice, the Egyptian government has severely restricted the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The recent ratification of Egypt’s draconian laws regarding NGOs convinced Washington that the Egyptian military regime has gone too far in its campaign against opposition members, Islamists and non-Islamists alike.

During his 30 years in power, former President Hosni Mubarak was able to forge a special relationship with Washington. Mubarak’s “formula” prevented strategic relations between the two countries from being impacted, despite temporary ebbs and flows in bilateral relations. Mubarak’s formula was not a result of his genius, but rather reflected Washington’s prerogatives. Unfortunately, successive U.S. administrations did not appear to truly care about promoting democracy or the Egyptian government’s respect for human rights and political freedoms. Mubarak always knew which of Washington’s red lines he could not cross. Today, however, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi apparently is crossing a red line with regard to North Korea.

Following their meetings in New York City, Washington and Riyadh, Trump and Sisi unequivocally confirmed the existence of a special relationship between their two countries, leading the Sisi regime to develop unrealistic expectations for what a Trump administration would mean for Egypt. Recently, the two sides announced resumption of the Operation Bright Star military exercises this October, marking the first time the United States will participate in the joint military exercise with Egypt since the toppling of Mubarak in 2011. While this may be a positive development between the two countries, only 200 U.S. troops will participate in this year’s iteration of an exercise that, in the recent past, was the largest in the region and included thousands of U.S. troops.

Meanwhile, the recent tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s ballistic missile program have contributed negatively to U.S.-Egypt relations. The Egyptian city of Port Said on the Suez Canal remains a critical transit point for North Korean arms exports to Africa. With Egypt’s “yes” vote, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2371 which provides for much tougher sanctions against North Korea. However, the Sisi regime refuses to enforce U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. Clearly, Egypt wants to have it both ways, as it attempts to cement its strategic relation with Washington on one hand while continuing military-to-military cooperation with North Korea on the other.

Trump’s unexpected decision to cut foreign aid to Egypt leaves Sisi with the painful option of severing Cairo’s longstanding relationship with North Korea. Trump’s team realizes that Cairo cannot contribute much to the region’s many raging crises. Although the U.S. administration praised President Sisi's call for “reform and religious revolution within Islam,” as well as Egypt’s recent adoption of economic reform measures suggested by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it understands that Egypt’s status is diminishing while the regional roles of states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey are expanding.

At the end of the day, economics and political challenges within Egyptian society, along with Egypt’s counterterrorism dilemma in the Sinai, leave no significant cards for the nation to play with the Trump administration regarding North Korea, so Sisi must abide by the U.S. administration’s wishes.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is the Washington bureau chief for Alaraby TV and a Middle East analyst. You can follow him on Twitter @ElMenshawyM.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.