I have compared statements made by Egypt’s late president Gamal Abdul Nasser, former president Hosni Mubarak and incumbent army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi on U.S. aid and found them to be generally in agreement despite being from different eras.
I am increasingly convinced that the similarities of the three leaders’ positions on aid, despite their different circumstances, echo an institution’s rationale based on a state perspective and a popular culture.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, General al-Sissi said: “If the Americans want to cut assistance, they can do that. But they don’t have to hurt us. That hurts the Egyptians a lot.”
I knew Mubarak in his final years in power and he never raised the issue of assistance with any U.S. president, confirming that such a discussion would hurt Egyptians’ dignity.
What eludes Americans’ understanding is that Egyptians are convinced that assistance amounts to a historical right that should not be reduced or halted.Abdullah Kamal
Mubarak once said in an interview: “We do not see U.S. assistance as perpetual. Discussion about it is a sort of pressure to make Egypt a satellite of Israel, but this will not happen because we are an Arab and Islamic country.”
Nasser took up U.S. assistance in several speeches in the 1960s. At the time, this aid hardly reached 50 million Egyptian pounds worth of supplies including wheat, meat and chicken.
“Egypt’s state budget is around LE1.1 billion. If the situation necessitates that we have to save LE50 million, we’ll do this at our shoes,” Nasser said in one speech. (In Egyptian culture, a reference to shoes implies defiance and indifference to threats.)
“Let he who use assistance as a threat go drink from the sea,” Nasser said in another address.
Assistance and Egyptian dignity
The statements made by Nasser, Mubarak and al-Sisi are similar, shaped by the prevalent public mood and different natures of Egyptian-U.S. links. These statements are not underlined by mutual interests, but are rather based on a component of Egyptians’ public culture: dignity. Ethically, Egyptians reject an understanding that U.S. assistance is a sum of money offered to get something in return from Egypt.
What eludes Americans’ understanding is that Egyptians are convinced that assistance amounts to a historical right that should not be reduced or halted. Egypt and other Arab countries were subjected to injustices from colonialism. Given that the U.S. inherited the colonial-era system, it is committed to making amends for these injustices.
The U.S. can never ignore the fact that it has helped destroy inter-region relations and establish new geographical realities in the area with the creation of Israel which prompted Arabs to go to war and channel a lot of their resources into this conflict. Egypt has suffered the most in terms of casualties and financial losses.
The U.S.’s economic and military assistance to Egypt was offered from the late 1970s when Egypt and Israel signed their peace pact. In order to provide an incentive for the peace process, Washington decided to offer aid to both Egypt and Israel. The latter gets lavish U.S. assistance including loan guarantees, weaponry and advanced technology.
On different occasions, parties in the U.S. have suggested reducing or stopping aid to Egypt. This has always run counter to the actual interests maintained by the U.S. arms manufacturers in Egypt. Arms deals to Egypt are bankrolled by U.S. assistance. Meanwhile, Arab countries have promised to offer Egypt financial alternatives to U.S. assistance if it is discontinued. This possibility marks a real Arab investment in Egypt’s military prowess. Still, Egypt’s armament system needs U.S. technology and spare parts, a fact that keeps the mechanism effective.
Over the past two years, Egypt’s military establishment has become more convinced that U.S. assistance will definitely be cut off. As Mubarak said, “assistance is not perpetual.” The army’s economy was once the target of harsh criticism from Egyptians echoing the U.S. way of thinking. Nonetheless, everyone has come to realize that the army’s economic activities are one of the key sources for financing should the army come under pressure, which is likely to occur at any moment.
Why aid should continue
With U.S. assistance linked to dignity and historical injustices in the Egyptian public mind, many in Egypt have recently called for rejecting it. Still, these emotional and cultural responses should be viewed in Cairo and Washington with two key factors taken into consideration, namely:
1- U.S. military assistance is part of the U.S.-sponsored peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This pact has built a regional security system, which is still in place. Cutting off aid or tampering with it will mean that Washington drops a major component of the pact and jeopardizes it. Accordingly, relations with Egypt and the regional security system will be in limbo.
2- U.S. aid to Egypt amounts to an international testimony that the country is part of the global system with duties as well as rights. Changing the situation will give rise to new realities and consequences.
Whatever the perspective, the issue always has two sides: dignity vs. pressure; Egyptian and U.S. interests; alternatives available to Washington vs. those available to Cairo; Egyptian and U.S. security; and regional and world security. All this makes U.S. assistance to Egypt a highly complicated issue. In the final analysis, Washington’s threat to withhold aid is empty. It will spawn serious effects if carried out. Meanwhile, turning back on this aid is yet an unaffordable luxury for Egyptians.
Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shura Council (2007 – 2011).
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