U.S.-Egypt ties hinge on Cairo rights record

Washington has struggled to walk that diplomatic tightrope since 2011, when Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak lost power

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The United States may have partially restored military assistance to Egypt but future ties with its former close Middle East ally will hinge on whether Cairo improves its human rights record, analysts say.

The likely victory of ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's presidential election next week will only intensify the foreign policy conundrum that Washington has grappled with since 2011.

On the one hand the United States wants to honor its commitment to democratic values and civil liberties; on the other it wishes to preserve a partnership which has been pivotal in shaping American policy in the Middle East for 35 years.

Washington has struggled to walk that diplomatic tightrope since 2011, when Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak lost power before being replaced by the Islamist Mohamed Morsi in 2012, who in turn was ousted by the military in July.

Morsi's ouster was followed by a bloody crackdown on his supporters which has drawn condemnation of Egypt's security forces from international human rights groups.

The volatile landscape means Washington is likely to keep Egypt's next head of state at arm's length, while demanding progress on democracy and human rights.

Since Morsi's arrest, more than 1,400 protesters have been killed and an estimated 15,000 members of the former president's Muslim Brotherhood have been thrown into jail.

Hundreds have been sentenced to death or given lengthy jail terms after a series of mass trials which have drawn international concern.

Hussein Ibish, an expert at the American Task Force on Palestine, said Egypt's legal system presented Washington with its thorniest issue.

“The judiciary is the biggest problem,” Ibish said. “These mass trials and mass sentences (...) it looks terrible.”

“I think the US-Egypt relationship is going to take a long time to repair,” he said.

Restoring US-Egypt ties would probably “require Egypt to move away from the current period of crackdown,” he added.

The recent visit to Washington of Egyptian officials including Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy indicated that Egypt was keen to “remain friends to the United States,” Ibish said.

“(But) right now there is no general warmth,” he added.

During decades of support for the authoritarian regimes of Anwar Sadat and his successor Mubarak, Washington viewed Egypt as a crucial strategic partner, guaranteeing the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty while providing military aid to Cairo worth $1.3 billion a year.

Washington partially froze military aid to Egypt in October in protest at the anti-Mursi crackdown before lifting the freeze in April to allow the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters for counterterrorism efforts in the unruly Sinai peninsula and some $650 million in aid.

However this tranche of assistance ran into resistance in Congress, where Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy flatly refused to sign off on aid to Egypt citing Cairo's “appalling” justice system.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week admitted Egypt had a “long way to go” before relations could be repaired.

“The Egyptians are not anywhere near where they need to be to be eventually to fulfill the commitments that were made to work toward a pathway of a free, fair, inclusive, democratic society,” Hagel said.

Amy Hawthorne, a former US State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, said Washington retained “a lot of hesitancy on how to move forward with Egypt.”

“The United States...is not looking to this election as a watershed event to Egypt, but they are looking at a lot of other factors to determine exactly how the relationship will be going forward -- mainly freedom of expression, of press, of assembly,” she said.

Comments from US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on Wednesday, in which he linked military aid to Egypt's political transition were significant.

“This is the first time I have seen a high military official talk about he military relationship being affected by Egypt's record on human rights and freedom,” Hawthorne said.

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