Egyptian businessmen ordered more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades from US rival North Korea in a secret deal last year, the Washington Post reported on Sunday. The United Nations described it as the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
The UN revealed that the business executives sought to buy weapons for the Egyptian military. The report prompted US criticism, while the Egyptian embassy in Washington pointed to Egypt’s willingness to cooperate with UN officials in “finding and destroying the contraband”.
The Post reported that the North Korea incident was among a number of factors that led US President Donald Trump’s administration to freeze nearly $300m in military aid to Egypt in August.
Egypt also remains unaccountable for human rights violations.
Over the past several years, there have been many concerns over human rights abuses, including suppressing freedom of speech and the implementation of laws that limit the operations of civil society groups.
Does Egypt’s human rights record really matter?
The US has not taken any substantial punitive measures against Egypt, even as organisations such as Human Rights Watch describe Egypt’s current human rights crisis as the worst “in the country’s modern history”.
Egypt will likely continue to receive assistance regardless of legal provisions it might be violating, said James Gelvin, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, noting that human rights-based restrictions are almost “routinely ignored when committed by a government the US wishes to support”.
Along with Israel and Afghanistan, Egypt is one of the three biggest recipients of US funding and weapons.
How much aid does the US provide to Egypt?
Since 1979, Egypt has been receiving uninterrupted aid at an average of $1.6bn a year, the bulk of which goes to the military.
Military support has come in the form of arms distribution and military training services. A biennial series of joint military exercises led by Egyptian and US troops in Egypt commenced in 1980.
Referred to as Operation Bright Star, the coalition training is designed to strengthen ties between the two country’s forces and to assist the United States in solidifying its strategic alliances in the Middle East.
In August, the US cut tens of millions in aid from Egypt, citing the country’s failure to make progress on human rights and democratic norms – but experts described these cuts as largely symbolic.
Why does Egypt get US aid?
For a country to become an eligible recipient of US aid, it must align itself with American interests and foreign policy, analysts say.
In the case of Egypt, US aid granted since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords was “untouchable compensation” for maintaining peace with Israel.This deal is considered a cornerstone of US-Egyptian relations.
Robert Springborg, a Middle East expert and non-resident fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, told Al Jazeera that US economic support was intended to stabilise Anwar Sadat’s [former Egyptian president] government and succeeding ones.
How does the US benefit?
The primary benefit is the “cessation of hostilities against Israel” by Egypt and “other Arab states that could not wage war against Israel in the absence of Egyptian participation”, Springborg said.
In addition to Egyptian support for American “counterterrorism and counterinsurgency” campaigns, Springborg says the US also enjoys marginal benefits, including access to Egyptian airspace and the prioritisation of US naval vessels through the Suez Canal.
The high amount of military aid, in particular, has also helped to create jobs and to reduce unemployment in the US. More than 1.3 million Americans work in manufacturing weaponry for defence companies, and more than three million others support the industry indirectly.
The US is among the world’s top five arms producers and distributors, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The United States does not give money to Egypt for military equipment; it gives the Egyptian military a list of equipment the American government will purchase on its behalf in the United States,” Gelvin told Al Jazeera.
What about economic aid?
Economic assistance, or American “investments” in Egypt, are a relatively small part of the package, analysts say.
Economic aid now stands at less than $200m annually, compared with more than $1bn from the early 1980s through the early 2000s, Springborg said.
Egypt’s domestic stability is important to the US, and so there is a sustained interest in its local economy. If the Egyptian economy collapses, it will render the region unstable, Gelvin said. And since the Egyptian military controls up to 60 percent of the Egyptian economy, it is unlikely that it will relinquish economic control to other institutions or factions in Egypt.
According to Gelvin, this was part of the Camp David package: “Since the army was not going to fight its main enemy of 30 years, it had to have some reason for being, and being so large.”
Aid stream for Egypt continuing despite violations
There are both political and legal conditions that must be met by countries on the US foreign aid list.
In 2012, US Congress made aid to Egypt conditional on the secretary of state certifying that the country was supporting human rights and democratic values. This came in response to an Egyptian crackdown on American NGO workers.
The amendment also required the secretary of state to ensure that Egypt was upholding its commitments to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Yet these provisions have not affected the aid stream to Egypt, a country infamous for its human rights abuses.
In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived the certification requirements after the Obama administration claimed that there was no way of ensuring such provisions were met.
In 2013, a military takeover that led to the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, struck “concern” among top White House officials, but they fell short of calling it a coup, which would have prohibited them from providing Egypt with military equipment.