When President Trump met in April with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — a brutal military dictator who overthrew his country’s democratically elected president in a 2013 coup, killed more than 800 protesters in a single day, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents since he took power — he heartily endorsed the man.
“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump said. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Which is why the Trump administration’s decision this week to cancel a $96 million aid package to Egypt and delay a different $195 million package, citing concerns about “democracy” and “human rights,” seemed a bit, well, out of character.
So what gives? Has the Trump administration suddenly had a change of heart? Or is there something else going on here?
It’s hard to know, as all we have to go on is the administration’s vague rhetoric about human rights problems in Egypt, which doesn’t seem to accord with Trump’s earlier celebration of Sisi’s authoritarianism. “It’s about human rights. Human rights is, obviously, a very big — it’s a part of what we do here each and every day, promoting human rights,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said during a press briefing on Wednesday.
But the prevailing theory among numerous experts I spoke to is that the White House thinks Sisi is going too far with his repression and is trying to be creative in its efforts to stop him. In addition to that, it could even be using it as an opportunity to pressure Egypt to cut its longstanding ties with North Korea.
Analysts point to a new law that Sisi passed in May that cracks down hard on nongovernmental organizations in Egypt like Human Rights Watch. Sisi’s government has long been hostile toward NGOs, but the new law ramps things up further with exceptionally onerous regulations that effectively shut them down or cripple them. High startup fees, new permit renewal requirements, and regulations requiring sign-off from the state on the publication of studies and surveys are designed to sap NGOs of their power. And violations of the law can be punished with jail time.
Crucially, the law imperils American workers based in Egypt who are often involved in administering American aid through these NGOs. A number of them have been given prison sentences in Egypt in the past, and analysts believe things are getting worse for them under this new law.
“It’s a little bit of an ‘America First’ thing — if Egypt is an ally and accepting aid, then it shouldn’t be beating up on Americans,” Michele Dunne, the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me.
Sisi shocked the administration with the NGO law
The Trump administration isn’t just worried about the law itself — it’s likely also frustrated by how it came into being, according to Egypt watchers. When Sisi visited the White House in April, his administration assured the US that he wouldn’t signed the law, which had already been passed by Egypt’s parliament.
But then Sisi did just that in May — perhaps empowered by Trump’s speech in Riyadh about a week prior, during which he told Arab leaders, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live.” One Trump administration official told CNN the White House felt "blindsided" when Sisi decided to pass the law.
“[The Trump administration] felt that they had expressed concerns over the law, and Sisi said he was not going to sign it, and then he went ahead and signed it,” Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Their expectations were betrayed.”
So it seems that Sisi failed to clear the incredibly low bar set by the Trump administration. He was more or less absolved of his past sins when first meeting with Trump, but the administration didn’t want him to escalate further, especially in a manner that threatens Americans and American interests.
The administration could be trying to reform Sisi
It’s possible that the Trump administration isn’t trying to chill relations with Egypt by withholding aid but actually trying to encourage it to do better. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is delaying the $195 million aid package in a rather inventive way.
The funding for that specific package of aid is bound by congressionally designed human rights conditions that say that Egypt must meet certain human rights standards in order to receive it. Since Egypt doesn’t meet those standards, it’s not supposed to receive that aid. But Tillerson has a special national security waiver he can use in order to release that aid to Egypt anyway. He did that — meaning the money for Egypt isn’t gone — but he set the money aside and said that Egypt has to improve its human rights record in order to get the funds.
In other words, he took the middle ground between letting the money vanish over human rights concerns and giving Egypt the money with no strings attached.
Tillerson is expected to hold the money back "until we see progress from Egypt on key priorities," an administration official said, according to CNN.
“They’ve taken what could’ve been a stick and turned into a carrot,” Wittes said.
Now that the money has been set aside, and Egypt could technically still receive it if Tillerson is happy with their progress, the question is what exactly does Egypt need to do in order to receive it? Analysts say the list of conditions could include all kinds of things, including a demand that Egypt stop enforcing the new NGO law it passed, or ease up its repression of journalists, or curb its military’s human rights abuses as it combats a terrorist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, among other things.
There’s also the possibility that the US is using the money as a way to lean on Egypt and cajole it into severing its long-running military and commercial ties to North Korea. Back in July, the White House’s readout of a call between Trump and Sisi indicated that Trump had pressed Sisi on the matter.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea is somehow factoring into the decision to do this right now,” Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “The administration seems to be trying to pressure foreign governments to sever all ties to North Korea, so the combination of Egypt’s continuing ties to North Korea and its continuing crackdown on human rights made this decision a pretty straightforward one for the US administration.”