Egyptian foreign minister cites ‘disturbance’ in relations with U.S.

CAIRO -- Egypt’s foreign minister said in an interview published Wednesday that turmoil in U.S.-Egyptian relations could harm American interests throughout the Middle East and suggested that his country’s military-backed government might begin distancing itself from the United States and seeking aid elsewhere, possibly from U.S. rivals.

The sharp tone of Nabil Fahmy’s remarks, made to the state-owned Al Ahram daily, appeared aimed at warning the Obama administration against trying to pressure Egyptian authorities into easing a harsh ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest Islamist movement.

Last week, the U.S. announced a suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt’s powerful military, mainly in the form of hardware like fighter jets and tanks.

Egypt’s interim government had already described the American move as “incorrect.” However, Fahmy offered up a more wide-ranging critique of the relationship with the United States. Egypt has for decades been one of the biggest beneficiaries of American aid, which traditionally has been seen as helping to strengthen Cairo’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel.


“What makes the current disturbance in relations more critical than before this is that it comes at a sensitive time in Egypt’s history, a very sensitive phase in the future of the entire Middle East,” the foreign minister said. “And the continuation of instability will reflect negatively on the entire region, including U.S. interests.”

In the midst of one of the principal Islamic holidays of the year, the three-day Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, the minister asserted that there was no need for excessive deference on Egypt’s part in its dealings with the United States. That is a crowd-pleasing notion in a country with a notably prickly brand of national pride.

“The Egyptian people will not hesitate to bear the fallout of the situation in order to maintain freedom and sovereignty over their decisions after two revolutions,” Fahmy said, likening the deposing by the military of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July to the 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime autocratic president.

Rather than criticizing U.S. aid cuts, the minister suggested that Egypt would work to cultivate ties elsewhere. “The problem … is caused by the dependence of Egypt on U.S. aid for 30 years, which made us choose the easy option and not diversify our options,” Fahmy said.

Anger at the United States has been simmering in the months since the military overthrew Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, a move welcomed by many Egyptians. Although the Obama administration stopped short of designating the action a coup, because that would deprive it of maneuvering room on the aid question, U.S. officials have been consistently critical of authoritarian measures subsequently taken by army chief Abdel Fattah Sisi, who, essentially, runs the country.

Those steps have included the violent dispersal of Morsi’s followers in mid-August that left nearly 1,000 of them dead, a prolonged nationwide state of emergency and mass arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has been jailed since July 3, when he was ousted, and is to be put on trial next month in the deaths of protesters.

Fahmy did temper his remarks by suggesting that the current tensions might be temporary. The interim government has pledged to carry out a rewrite of the constitution and hold elections next year, and U.S. officials have said the partial suspension of military aid could be lifted if there is sufficient progress toward democratization.

The current “state of disturbance” could ultimately benefit both parties, because “both will have to recalculate matters and conduct their relations in a better way in the future,” the minister said. “Relations will be witnessing a change, whether we like it or not.”


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Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Alexandria, Egypt contributed to this report.