Washington’s decision on August 22 to delay or cancel nearly $300 million in aid to Egypt caught Cairo by surprise. For many months, the Egyptian government had assumed that the warm rapport between U.S. president Donald Trump and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, was sufficient to ensure strong bilateral relations, including the continuation of U.S. military aid after years of uncertainty under the previous administration. The changes in aid, however, illustrate the complex bureaucratic and domestic politics underlying U.S. policy toward Egypt, which the Trump administration failed to manage in this case, producing a confusing outcome that immediately conflicts with the administration’s other priorities.
The decision reflects institutional fights over three separate packages of aid to Egypt, two of which are being canceled. First, the administration is reprogramming $65.7 million in military aid from fiscal year 2014. Congress had blocked the disbursement of these funds under the so-called Leahy laws, which prohibit assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross human rights violations, because of concerns that the Egyptian military had used U.S. equipment for Sinai operations that entailed significant civilian casualties. An April 2016 Government Accountability Office report, titled U.S. Government Should Strengthen End-Use Monitoring and Human Rights Vetting for Egypt, validated congressional concerns about insufficient human rights vetting of U.S. military aid to Egypt, and the Trump administration decided it would be unable to address these concerns before the end of September, at which point this aid would expire.
Second, the administration is redirecting $30 million in economic aid to address other thus-far-unspecified regional priorities. This move reflects persistent concerns within the U.S. government and Congress regarding Egypt’s dismal human rights record. It also follows months of unheeded warnings from Washington that Egypt’s restrictive NGO law would disrupt the provision of economic aid, and the administration faced significant pressure from Congress to withhold such aid after Sisi approved the NGO law in May.