Two weeks after former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended to the Egyptian presidency, he is consolidating his position with endorsements from key backers the United States and Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry touched down for a visit to Cairo - the highest level US visit since Mr. Sisi was elected president with over 96% of the vote at the end of May.
Washington’s close relationship with Cairo has traditionally been cemented by military assistance to Egypt of over $1 billion a year, but this was partially suspended last October, following a military coup and four police-led mass killings.
Despite a growing crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of government opponents arrested, most supporters of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi against whom Sisi led a military coup last July, Kerry’s touchdown in Cairo coincided with the announcement that the US had quietly sent an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance this month.
"This is a critical moment of transition [and] enormous challenges," Kerry told reporters on arrival. "There are issues of concern ... but we know how to work at these."
During his visit, he raised concerns over the security services’ myriad human rights abuses, as well as the case of three imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists, who will learn tomorrow if they are to walk free, or be handed lengthy jail sentences. However, he went on to say that more aid is on its way.
Helicopters on the way
"The Apaches will come, and they'll come very very soon," Kerry told reporters, in reference to one big-ticket weapons deal that was suspended in October. The US is planning on delivering 10 Apache attack helicopters to Egypt's military.
Analysts say that despite the muted criticism, Kerry’s diplomatic visit and the partial aid release shows the US is keen to return to the steady bilateral relationship that the two countries had developed in the decades prior to the 2011 uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power.
Now, as in the past, the US is aiming to reduce tensions by softening its criticism on human rights issues, says Amy Hawthorne, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who previously worked on Egypt policy at the State Department.
Since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, US influence has waned as the sway of the Gulf monarchies has risen. Egypt’s economy has been badly scarred by three years of political turmoil, and short-to-medium term economic recovery will not be possible without the continued financial support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. They have donated over $20 billion since July last year.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah affirmed his strong support for Sisi by making a brief trip to Cairo Friday, despite his frail health. He welcomed the new president aboard his plane for 30 minutes during a pit stop on the way back from Morocco -- one photograph plastered across state media shows Sisi kissing the king tenderly on the head.
The Saudis were horrified at the fall of Mubarak, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt's elections, and the seeming US preference in 2011 for political change rather than foursquare support for a military-backed strongman. They have been elated at the coup, Sisi's presidency, and his commitment to stamping out the Muslim Brotherhood's influence on Egypt's political life.
Worried about how Egypt’s balance of affections have shifted so strongly in favor of the Gulf, the US is now scrambling to retain a place at the table, and Kerry's visit looks like a first step down that road. The US focus has also shifted away from a rhetoric of democracy promotion back to more interest on security issues in the country.
Kerry, on the one hand, said: "I emphasized also our strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association." But on the other, he promised delivery of high-end weapons to a military that has been instrumental in rolling back efforts at democracy. Since the coup last July, Egypt has outlawed most public protests, banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and arrested scores of political activists.
Of primary concern to the US, it seems, is Egypt’s ability to maintain security in the restive Sinai peninsula, a training ground for a group of Al Qaeda-linked militants who have mounted high profile attacks across Egypt over the past year.
“The Obama administration recognizes the risk of ungoverned spaces,” says Zack Gold, an independent Middle East analyst focusing on US-Egyptian relations. “If left unhindered, they could in time also threaten broader western interests, including attacks on international commerce, attacks against western embassies or citizens, or possibly even plots against the US homeland or Europe.”
Egypt has said that America’s Apache delivery will be crucial in the fight against militancy in the Sinai.
But the return of Washington’s aid is unlikely to be accompanied by increased leverage on human rights and political freedom. “There is little to suggest such an approach will have any positive effect on Egypt's political situation, just as this same approach had no effect on Mubarak,” says Hawthorne.
“By all indications, Egypt is heading in the exact opposite direction, towards the consolidation of a new authoritarian regime.”