January 25, 2016
Five Years On: Egypt's International Relations
By Elissa Miller
During the revolution in 2011, President Barack Obama voiced support for a transition of power and called on Mubarak to take protester demands seriously. On February 1, he told Mubarak that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.” He also addressed the Egyptian people, saying "We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future." Amid announcements of a transition, Obama called on the Egyptian government to “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy.” After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, Obama said, “The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary -- and asked for -- to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.”
In October 2011, Obama spoke with SCAF leadership to “reaffirm the close partnership between the United States and Egypt and to underscore his full support for Egypt’s transition to democracy.” While Obama also addressed some concerns, urging the SCAF to lift Egypt’s emergency law and end military trials for civilians, he emphasized his support for full funding of assistance to Egypt without conditions.
In a call to Morsi following his election in 2012, Obama underscored continued US assistance to Egypt’s transition and “emphasized his interest in working together” with Morsi. Three months later, following protests at the US Embassy in Cairo, in which protestors climbed into the compound and tore down the American flag, Obama called Morsi to express his dissatisfaction with “acts that endanger American personnel and facilities.” Following the protests, Obama had said of Egypt in an interview, "I don’t think that we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”
When mass protests erupted on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as president, Obama encouraged Morsi to “take steps” to respond to the protesters’ concerns and resolve the crisis through a political process, noting concern for violence during the demonstrations. Days later, Obama expressed “deep concern” for the army’s removal of Morsi and called for a quick return to “a democratic elected civilian government.”
After the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in, the United States condemned the violence and called for “restraint” on behalf of the Egyptian armed forces and urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully. Obama also canceled the planned joint military exercise, Bright Star. In a speech on August 15, he said, "America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people. We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure. We want Egypt to succeed....But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”
In September, the United States suspended some military assistance to Egypt. However, the Obama administration refrained from labeling Morsi’s ouster a coup. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of the suspension: "As a result of the review directed by President Obama, we have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests.”
The US-Egypt “strategic partnership” has improved following Sisi’s election. While Obama expressed concern about mass trials, crackdowns on NGOs, and the imprisonment of journalists and activists, he continually reaffirmed bilateral cooperation with Egypt particularly in the areas of counterterrorism and regional security. In March 2015, Obama called Sisi to inform him that after 18 months, the United States would lift executive holds placed on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits. Obama pledged to continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt, however he noted that the United States would adjust US security assistance to Egypt by channeling it towards four categories - counterterrorism, border security, Sinai security, and maritime security - and ending cash flow financing, an arrangement offered only to Egypt and Israel, starting in 2018.
In August, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met in Cairo for the first US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue since 2009. Ahead of Kerry’s visit, the State Department issued a statement saying the dialogue “reaffirms the United States’ longstanding and enduring partnership with Egypt.” In Cairo Kerry emphasized that “Egypt remains vital” for “engagement and stability” in the Middle East. Kerry also said the United States would resume the joint military exercise, Bright Star, with Egypt.
Following the 2011 revolution, Gulf countries rushed to provide Egypt with financial assistance. Saudi Arabia pledged $4 billion in budgetary aid, including $1 billion deposited in the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) committed $3 billion to Egypt (the delivery of which was put on hold after Morsi’s presidential victory). In May 2011, Qatar proposed projects worth $10 billion to boost Egypt’s economy.
Following Morsi’s election, Qatar granted Egypt $2.5 billion for budget support assistance. In January 2013, Qatar announced an additional loan of $2 billion and a grant of $500 million. Overall, Qatar had pledged to invest $18 billion in Egypt over five years for tourism and industry projects. In September 2013, following Morsi’s removal, Egypt returned $2 billion Qatar had deposited in the CBE. In October 2014, Egypt said it would return another $500 million deposit from Qatar. Since his ouster, Qatar has repeatedly called for Morsi’s release from detention.
Following Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE granted Egypt $12 billion. According to Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman, by the end of 2014, the three countries had pledged $23 billion in financial aid. In March 2015 at the Sharm al-Sheikh Economic Development Conference, the three countries pledged another $12.5 billion to Egypt in investments and central bank deposits. Overall, the three Gulf countries provided Egypt with over $40 billion in grants and loans since 2011. Saudi Arabia recently pledged significant aid and investment contributions to Egypt over the next five years. Arab sovereign funds have also pledged billions for development projects in Egypt over the next three years. In addition, Egypt has sought aid from international financial institutions as well as other global powers, such as China.
Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @ElissaFMiller. The most significant shifts in Egypt’s foreign relations over the past five years have affected mainly