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November 18, 2014

Don't cut aid to Egypt: The hopeful case for supporting Egyptian President Sisi

Ahmed H. Zewail

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Some members of Congress have criticized Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi lately and called for a reduction in or elimination of U.S. military aid as a way of punishing his administration. After meeting with Sisi in Cairo recently and talking to a wide range of citizens there, I have come to understand why most Egyptians now support him. And I believe that cutting foreign aid to Egypt at this point would harm the U.S.-Egypt relationship and have serious consequences for the Middle East.

Today, the U.S. needs Egypt's partnership more than ever.- 

History illustrates the danger. In 1955, in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the United States agreed to provide funding to help build the Aswan Dam and create a source of hydroelectric power considered pivotal to Egypt's industrialization. Then, just months later, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles became convinced that Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, wasn't trustworthy, and he withdrew the U.S. offer of funding. The result: Egypt's political compass swung from West to East, and the Soviet Union quickly stepped in to fill the void.

It wasn't until 1973 that the direction was reversed by President Anwar Sadat. In the 40 years since then, the U.S.-Egypt relationship has been extremely important, and for 40 years the Middle East has witnessed peace between Israel and Egypt.

Today, the U.S. needs Egypt's partnership more than ever. In addition to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which is crucial to U.S. interests both domestically and in the Middle East, the U.S. has had and will continue to need Egypt's collaboration in the war on terrorism. Just last month, northern Sinai was struck by terrorists, who killed more than 30 Egyptian army personnel and wounded a number of civilians.

The partnership between the United States and Egypt is crucial to both countries, and it can't be predicated on political manipulation and threats of withholding aid. Moreover, the United States must be aware that it is no longer the primary provider of foreign aid to Egypt. Today, the Gulf States contribute more than 10 times what the U.S. does.

When Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in 2012, many in the country, including me, were hopeful that he would become a democratic president for all Egyptians. Unfortunately, his presidency quickly became a proxy for the Muslim Brotherhood, and under his leadership the country was driven to the edge of civil war. Millions took to the streets on June 30, 2013, to demand change and greater stability for Egypt.

President Sisi did not initially intend to run for the office in which he now serves, but he was urged to, I was told, by the chief justice of Egypt's Supreme Court and others. If the election that put him into office was rigged, as some politicians and editorials have claimed, why would Egyptians continue to support him after the election?

It is certainly not because he has taken the path of political expediency. Shortly after Sisi was elected, his administration announced cuts of "subsidies" on natural gas and energy consumption and lowered those for bread and other goods. This was an important step for economic stability in Egypt, but was considered politically impossible for more than half a century during the presidencies of Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Sisi was able to convince Egyptians he was taking necessary action.

In another post-election call to Egyptians, he proclaimed the inauguration of a national project — the New Suez Canal — a waterway parallel to the one dug in 1869, and he called on Egyptians to invest in the project. In eight days, the Central Bank of Egypt raised nearly $8.5 billion by selling investment certificates. I visited one bank during those eight days, and the line circled several blocks. Banks had to stay open late to handle the unexpectedly huge volume of transactions.

It is true that Egypt's attempt at democracy after the 2011 revolution encountered many obstacles. And there remain issues to address, among them establishing fair laws governing NGOs, enforcing the rule of law for political prisoners awaiting trials, and the integration of Muslim Brotherhood members into the political fabric of Egypt.

These issues make it all the more crucial, however, for the U.S. to continue to engage Egypt through direct dialogue and partnership. America should not hesitate to wield its considerable soft power — providing access to American markets, initiating trade agreements, providing aid for building new educational and democratic institutions. The so-called Arab Spring has proved that the fall of a Mubarak-like presidency does not mean the immediate rise of democracy. That will take time and nurturing and encouragement.

Egypt is facing monumental problems. Besides internal issues, including a troubled economy and high unemployment, it has security problems to its east with Islamic State, to its west with Libya and in the south toward Yemen. But despite these issues, Sisi has managed to get the majority of Egyptians behind him, taken serious steps toward reforming the ailing economy, and given hope to the country by initiating major national projects, including the City of Science and Technology, which I have been actively involved in promoting for many years. As the Economist put it in a piece about Sisi's first 100 days, the president “has brought economic and diplomatic advances as well as hope to Egyptians wearied by years of political turmoil.”

The U.S. needs to feed that hope, and cutting aid to Egypt won't accomplish that.

Ahmed H. Zewail, the 1999 Nobel laureate in chemistry, is a professor at Caltech and chairman of the board of trustees of Egypt's City of Science and Technology.

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