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The U.S. cites human rights violations for the suspension of aid, but the real reasons are more complex, says Seif Da’na of the University of Wisconsin, Parkside

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Last week the U.S. suspended almost $200 million in aid and reduced another 96 million to Egypt. In response, the Egyptian government announced that it was going to cancel a meeting with Jared Kushner, who is President Trump’s son-in-law, who is also the special envoy for the Middle East peace talks. Eventually the meeting did take place on Wednesday, but without a joint statement. President Trump was reportedly phoning President al-Sisi to smooth things over. Now joining us to talk about all of this is Professor Seif Da’na. He is Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin Parkside. He specializes in Middle East and North Africa. Thank you so much for joining us today, Professor. SEIF DA’NA: Thank you, Sharmini, for having me. SHARMINI PERIES: So Professor, human rights are clearly not the reason for suspending aid by the Trump administration. What is this all about? SEIF DA’NA: Well, it’s very difficult to accept the human rights argument here. I mean, al-Sisi’s regime violation of human rights and any criticism notwithstanding, there are actually other issues. Two main issues, particularly. The first issue, which I would talk about fast because it’s not really very important I think, it’s a critique, a criticism by the United States regarding an Egyptian and North Korean dialog on weapons development. It seems that somebody at the State Department was upset that the Egyptians met with the North Koreans, or there was an Egyptian delegation that met with a North Korean delegation regarding weapons development. The second issue is what is called Law 70 that basically prohibits or regulates the functions and the working of civil society organizations and NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. Now this is a bit tricky here, because while that is the reason that is used as cover for the human rights issue or for the human rights argument, but most people in the region and most governments in the region are actually very critical of the role of the NGOs in particular, and to a large extent most of the research shows that some of the NGOs are actually GOs or governmental organizations in some sense. The Egyptian government has been very sensitive to this since Mubarak’s time, because any foreign aid supported organization they assume will be implementing a foreign agenda. And that’s what NGOs do according to them. So on May 24, basically President Sisi ratified the law that was passed by the Egyptian Parliament about six months ago or seven months ago, and I think he did that because he assumed that the American administration is not going to criticize him for this. The reason being he waited over six months because of the criticisms that came from Europe and other places, but after he met with President Trump there was some miscalculation it seems. He did not see that division or the disagreement between the White House and the State Department regarding this law. The assumption that probably there was a good personal relationship between President Trump and President Sisi, he assumed that this is not going to be an issue. That’s why he moved after he met with President Trump. He moved on and ratified the law, making it into a law of course after signing it as the President. So that’s really the real issue now, the role of the non-governmental organizations in Egypt. And I think the State Department … that’s the concern that the State Department has, mainly. From the point of view of the Egyptian government and many Egyptian actually people, non-governmental organizations are foreign tools that implement foreign agenda and promote foreign ideologies. So in that sense, that’s really the core issue is the role of the non-governmental organizations. Because if we want to talk about human rights violations, just look next door. Israel violates the rights of the Palestinians on a daily basis, refuse to implement the Security Council resolutions, tons of Security Council resolutions. Look at the other side, Saudi Arabia the same thing, at least what they are doing in Yemen, for example, let alone what they are doing inside Saudi Arabia. So it’s not really human rights violations here as much as it’s a question of foreign policy regarding North Korea and the second issue is this new law that would regulate … would heavily actually regulate … many of the non-governmental organizations that are supported and financed by the West, by western countries primarily. SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Professor, what you mentioned about Egypt and North Korea, what exactly is the relationship between Egypt and North Korea, what are they involved in that the U.S. is objecting to? SEIF DA’NA: Well, there isn’t really a strong relations between Egypt and North Korea, but recently there was a military delegation that met to discuss weapons development, and that … I think that was planned before the latest Security Council resolution against North Korea. But the Egyptian delegation nonetheless went ahead and held the meeting with the North Koreans, and the State Department expressed concerns and actually was angry, criticized the Egyptian move to meet with the North Koreans. They assume that the Egyptians will obey the Security Council resolution. Now the Egyptians might say that this is not really detailed in the Security Council resolution, such meetings are not prohibited by the Security Council resolution, but that’s really one of the issues. Again, there has been serious miscalculation by the Egyptian government here, and by the Egyptian administration. After the … supposedly the very good meeting between President Trump and President Sisi, there were many mistaken assumptions that the Egyptians held about what they can do and what they cannot do. To the extent that they actually after the ratification of the Law 70 regarding the non-governmental organizations, actually the Egyptian Foreign Ministry sent the State Department a letter specifying what they expect the new … what the NGOs … how would the NGOs adapt to the new Egyptian law. When the State Department did not reply to their letter, they assumed that the Americans accepted and are okay with it. Again, based on miscalculation because of the nature of the warm meeting between President Trump and President Sisi. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now one must admit that Trump did announce very early on that foreign aid will be cut overall except for Israel and Egypt, and Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. What consequences will cutting aid have on the Egyptian economy? SEIF DA’NA: Well, the Egyptian aid, the annual aid for Egypt, is part of the Camp David Agreement that President Carter basically oversaw back in 1979, so Egypt is supposed to receive between 1.3 to 1.5 billion dollars annually. And this is stipulated in the Agreement, in the Camp David Agreement. Part of military aid and of course economic aid. The economic aid is very minor actually, less that $150 million annually. The rest are mainly military aid. So this is stipulated in the Camp David Agreement, so that’s why I think the Obama administration was hesitant to actually freeze the aid when the military coup took place in Egypt. Basically because they did not want that to affect the Israeli-Egyptian Agreement, the political Agreement, or the Peace Agreement as they call it. This is different from possibly any other kind of aid that the U.S. provides to any other country. Now, the reduction basically … the first … and I think this is related to the law that we mentioned, Law 70 regarding the NGOs … The first discussion or the first recommendation for reduction came from the Senate Appropriations Committee back in May I guess. In their meeting in May, they invited three experts and basically they recommended reducing the economic aid part from 150 million to 112 million, about 25%, because of mismanagement they said. Now we know after … This happened at the same time when President Sisi ratified the new law, and basically that some members in the Senate and in the Congress did not like the new Egyptian law that regulates the workings of civil society organizations and NGOs. So this is part of the pressure that is being exercised on Egypt to change the law and provide more freedom for the NGOs and other civil society organizations funded by the West primarily. So it started in the Senate Appropriations Committee actually back in May, and now the State Department in some sense adopted it, and the State Department is reducing the overall aid by 96 million and is freezing 200 million pending the Egyptian change of behavior regarding the NGOs and the new law that was passed by the Parliament and ratified by the President. SHARMINI PERIES: What was the reason for canceling the meeting with Jared Kushner and then reinstating it? SEIF DA’NA: Well there were many … Basically many people in Egypt, even officials, and in the Arab world in general demanded that the Egyptian foreign minister cancel the meeting with Jared Kushner as a way of protesting the reduction in aid, basically because it was seen as an insult to Egypt. As I said, there is a reduction of 96 million, but the freezing of the 200 million is conditional based on Egyptians’ behavior. That was insulting to the Egyptians. Actually, the Foreign Ministry announced that they are going to cancel the meeting with Jared Kushner, but for some reason instead of canceling the meeting with the Foreign Minister as a way of protesting the American decision, Jared Kushner met with the President. So it was more like a reward really rather than a punishment or a protest to the Americans. The only thing they did is they did not issue a statement after the meeting, but that’s really it. So instead of meeting the Foreign Minister, he managed to meet the President. SHARMINI PERIES: Professor, Egypt is also going into an election season. Is the aid which was suspended by the U.S. going to affect President al-Sisi’s stability going into this election? SEIF DA’NA: Well, we don’t know if there is going to be an election. Basically there is a new law that is being discussed in the Egyptian Parliament to extend the term of the President to six years instead of four years, which means that instead of going for election in 2018 for President Sisi, it will be 2020. So there is … The discussion is ongoing in the Egyptian Parliament. Most likely it will pass, so Sisi doesn’t have to go through the elections in 2018. He managed to basically extend his term, or he will manage to extend his term. From the way the Parliament has been working recently, he gets his way, so he will get his term extended. But when we talk about the aid, $1.5 billion and we talk about a country like Egypt, it might have an effect but it is not really a significant effect. The effect might be on the military mainly, because most … after the Camp David Agreement back in 1979, the Egyptian military changed all its gear and equipment from a Russian-based military into an American-based military or weaponry. And in that sense, that is … Most of the aid goes to that aspect, the military aid. And in that sense that could be affected. But the problems of Egypt cannot really be solved or even cannot be helped by 1.5 billion. They will do nothing to the Egyptian economy. It’s in a very terrible situation. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And give us a sense of this action on the part of the United States in terms of suspending the aid to Egypt and what that has to do with Jared Kushner’s meeting, who’s really the special envoy for Israel-Palestine peace talks. And also the complication here with the aid that Egypt receives also from Saudi Arabia and the recent tensions with Qatar in the region, and how all of this puzzle fits together. SEIF DA’NA: Well, Jared Kushner is President Trump’s envoy to the … not to the Middle East really, to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and President Trump doesn’t really until now have a vision for settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or struggle, or the Arab-Israeli struggle, whatever people prefer to use the term. Until now, he did not show any vision, doesn’t have any proposal. So he has been meeting with regional leaders, so in this tour before going to Palestine, he met … he went to Saudi Arabia, met with a Crown Prince, and went to Jordan, met with the King of Jordan, and then met with President Sisi in Egypt. Now, his meeting with President Sisi was supposed to be about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not about anything else. But of course, after this came, the reduction and suspension of the aid, basically this was part of the discussion, but again it wasn’t the main issue. The Foreign Minister of Egypt basically mentioned that the peace process … that the American administration must have a clear vision that entails deadlines and framework in order to start or restart the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But again, the only help that these regional leaders could provide for the American administration and for Jared Kushner is putting pressure on the Palestinian leadership. That’s the only thing they can do. They cannot put pressure on the Israeli leadership. And there is no vision, basically, at this point. Jared Kushner doesn’t have a vision. President Bush doesn’t have a vision, or doesn’t have a proposal, at least. The Palestinian leadership basically said recently, I think yesterday or the day before that, they met almost 20 times with American representatives, and they don’t have an idea how the Americans are going to solve the problem, because there is no proposal. The two state solution that all the previous administrations adopted, the Trump administration did not show any support for that solution, and there was no condemnation by the United States administration for the settlement expansion and settlement building, which was … at least other previous administrations paid lip service to that. They criticized the settlement construction as being illegal according to the international law. This administration doesn’t. So the Palestinian leadership is confused to some extent about what is the proposal of the President, of the Trump administration. They did not criticize the settlement construction, they did affirm the commitment to the two state solution, and they don’t have a proposal. They talked about a regional solution or a regional settlement, but a regional settlement will actually prolong the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because basically it would eliminate one of the major issues that the Palestinians consider as strength, which is the Arabs and the Muslims in the region. So in that sense, really the aid wasn’t part of the discussion. I think it was a minor issue in the discussion according to the Foreign Ministry, but then President Trump and of course President Sisi had a phone call to confirm or to affirm the good relations between the two countries, which is the usual diplomatic statement that would be issued after such a phone call. But again, the suspension of part of the aid and reduction of the aid would affect Egypt, but I don’t think it would affect Egypt significantly given the nature of Egypt’s problems. Go ahead. SHARMINI PERIES: Professor Da’na, one final twist to all of this is that it was just announced, I believe today, that Qatar has reinstated its relationship with Iran, which for a very long time the Gulf States stood together, and so there’s a departure on the part of Qatar in terms of that policy, in terms of its affiliation with Iran. What do you make of this? SEIF DA’NA: Well, this is actually one of the signs that Qatar is winning the current dispute, or at least was able to overcome the pressures from Saudi Arabia. But actually Qatar at this point needs two countries desperately, because of the siege placed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and these two countries are Turkey and Iran. Without these two countries, with the ongoing siege, they won’t be able to bring food to Qatar basically. As simple as this. But basically the Qatari-Iranian relations were suspended back in 2015 or 2016 when there was an attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran, so it was in solidarity with the Saudis at that time. But it became part of the demand of Saudi Arabia on Qatar to cut all diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, although Saudi Arabia has some economic relations with Iran, although the United Arab Emirates has the most economic relations with Iran in the region. Actually they have also diplomatic relations, but they don’t have ambassadors. They called the ambassadors back in 2016, again in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. So given that, Qatar doesn’t have an option. But that doesn’t mean that Qatar is moving into the Iranian camp as much as it’s a matter of expediency in this case. They need Iran, and they need Turkey, the two countries that supported them from the beginning with the siege that was placed on Qatar. And I think with that they would improve the status of Qatar actually in the region and enable Qatar to face the pressures more successfully than they are doing now, although they have been doing it successfully so far. But they will be able to face the pressure from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt more successfully with Iran at least on their side or at least not their enemy, and Turkey in their back. SHARMINI PERIES: Interesting times. I thank you so much for joining us, Professor Da’na. SEIF DA’NA: Thank you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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Seif Da'na is Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He specializes in the Middle East and North Africa.