On the eve of Jared Kushner’s visit to Egypt, President Trump delivered an unpleasant surprise to one of his friendliest allies in the Middle East. The New York Times reports:
The Trump administration on Tuesday denied Egypt $96 million in aid and delayed $195 million in military funding because of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record and its cozy relationship with North Korea.
Asked if Egypt’s robust relationship with North Korea played a role in Tuesday’s action, a State Department official would say only that issues of concern have been raised with Cairo, but refused to provide details about the talks.
On the face of it, the decision to withhold aid from Egypt is a striking departure from the Trump Administration’s pattern of behavior. For one, Trump has always enjoyed a chummy relationship with Sisi, who was one of the first foreign leaders to take him seriously as a candidate (they met in New York last September), and whom Trump has showered with praise and promises of support. Until now, Trump has demonstrated no unease about Sisi’s sorry human rights record, nor shown any interest in prioritizing humanitarian concerns in his dealings with allies. In fact, his Administration has established a clear pattern of fast-tracking weapons transfers or aid deliveries that Obama had temporarily suspended 0ver humanitarian concerns (just ask the Saudis and Thais.)
Has Trump suddenly acquired a conscience about human rights and a newfound concern over Cairo’s repressive treatment of NGOs? That scenario is unlikely—and the Times’ theory that this is really about North Korea deserves further scrutiny.
Egypt has long had a dubious record when it comes to North Korea. The two countries have a history of exchanges of arms and expertise going back to the 1970s, when Cairo began selling Pyongyang missiles and North Korean pilots helped train their Egyptian counterparts. By some accounts, a version of that cozy relationship continues covertly today. A troubling UN investigation earlier this year uncovered “hitherto unreported” trade between Pyongyang and countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with sensitive exchanges including air defense systems and satellite-guided missiles. In several cases, Egyptian companies were implicated in those transactions—a finding consistent with the claim of a former DPRK official that Egypt is the “hub” of Pyongyang’s Middle Eastern arms trade.
Those findings may help explain why, in a July phone call, President Trump raised the North Korean issue with Sisi. According to the White House readout, Trump “stressed the need for all countries to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, stop hosting North Korean guest workers, and stop providing economic or military benefits to North Korea.” That is a message that the Administration has been delivering to all countries it suspects of noncompliance with the North Korean sanctions regime: from heavy hitters like China and Russia to minor enablers like the ASEAN countries.
And if Trump wanted to punish Cairo for failing to enforce sanctions, withholding aid must have looked like a tempting method. The money in question had already been held up by the Obama Administration, so declining to release it is a less antagonistic move than actively levying sanctions on Egypt. And by publicly conditioning the release of that money on human rights progress, Trump has already earned some early plaudits from some of his staunchest critics, including Senator John McCain, who has been an outspoken opponent of Sisi’s authoritarianism and the new NGO law.
This is not to say that the decision to squeeze Egypt is necessarily wise or risk-free. The move may have already cost Trump some goodwill with Sisi: after news of the decision came out, the Foreign Ministry initially canceled a meeting with Kushner in an apparent snub. The Egyptians eventually allowed Kushner a sit-down with Sisi, but they are clearly not happy: the foreign ministry said the decision “[reflected] poor judgment of the strategic relationship that ties the two countries” and could have “negative implications” on cooperation going forward.
Among other things, that could be a reference to Egypt’s help on the Israel-Paliestine dispute, the very issue that Kushner was in Egypt to discuss. Cairo is reportedly on the cusp of negotiating a deal that would reopen the border with Gaza, allow much-needed humanitarian aid to pass through, and (in all likelihood) empower Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian leader more conducive to U.S. and Israeli interests than the lame duck Mahmoud Abbas. Given Egypt’s crucial role in mediating these talks, alienating Cairo is a risky proposition.
But that only strengthens the argument that the Trump Administration would not have jeopardized that relationship over human rights alone. Concerns about Sisi’s repression may well have influenced the aid decision on the margins, but they were more likely convenient justifications disguising Trump’s primary motive for punishing Egypt. After all, the North Korean crisis has been Trump’s top foreign policy priority, an issue that has consumed much of his Administration’s diplomatic energy as it seeks to increase the economic pressure on the regime. And just as Trump invoked humanitarian reasons to justify his airstrike on Syria (a move that was also about sending North Korea a message), he may now be doing the same to pressure Pyongyang via Cairo.