Egypt could be a pawn in the US’s North Korea offensive — if it had the foresight

Key Points
  • U.S. moves to cancel state aid to Egypt could have been an indirect hit at North Korea - but it would take serious foresight from the U.S. administration, analysts suggest.
  • Egypt shares historic diplomatic ties with North Korea.
  • The U.S. cut $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and suspended $195 million more following what it called human rights concerns.
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in the Oval Office of White House in Washington, DC, April 3, 2017.
Olivier Douliery-Pool | Getty Images

The U.S.'s moves on Tuesday to cancel state aid to Egypt prompted suggestions that the Middle Eastern country may have become little more than a bargaining chip in a wider strategy to apply to North Korea. But analysts have suggested this could be something of an ambitious notion given the administration's track record.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that moves to pull $95.7 million in aid to Egypt and suspend a further $195 million on human rights grounds could be part of a greater, premeditated agenda to indirectly target North Korea, a country with which Egypt shares strong diplomatic ties.

However, analysts have suggested that the strategy appears "too well planned" to have stemmed from an administration whose formative months have been dogged by failed social reforms, high-profile diplomatic clashes and mass resignations.

"These suspensions could be a way of the U.S. gaining leverage rather than burning ties, but somehow that seems too well planned to be part of the administration's agenda," Frederick Carriere, research professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in New York, told CNBC Thursday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) test launch in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters

The suspension of $195 million prevented the funds from expiring, which they would have otherwise done at the end of September. This means that Egypt has a chance to regain them.

Nevertheless, Carriere agreed that recently escalating tensions with North Korea could have been a motivation behind the sudden turnaround.

"Egypt might be a particularly fruitful pressure point in applying pressure to North Korea," Carriere said. "There may be other motivations, but this move would certainly be the latest in a pattern of applying pressure to North Korea."

Egypt's ties to North Korea date back to the 1970s, when North Korean pilots helped to train Egyptian fight pilots before its 1973 war with Israel. It is reported that North Korea later obtained its first Scud-B ballistic missiles from Egypt in 1979 or 1980, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a non-profit research body. More recently, in 2015, the United Nations said that Egypt's Port Said was being used by North Korean front companies and shipping agents for weapons smuggling.

However, Egypt's ties with the U.S. are also long and substantial, and the U.S. announcement appeared to shock the Egyptian government, resulting in the immediate cancellation of a scheduled meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump's top adviser Jared Kushner and Egypt's Foreign minister Sameh Shoukry.

Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser of President Donald Trump.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

The U.S. said the moves targeted Egypt's human rights failures, which is something the U.S. has been pressuring Egypt on for years, but relations appeared to be warming under a Trump Presidency.

"The arguments regarding human rights abuses are not new. The slight difference now though is that Trump had suggested a warming of ties with Egypt," Andrew Freeman, North Africa analyst at global risk consultancy Control Risks, told CNBC over the phone.

"There is a certainly strong man image that the two have in common and this suspension goes against what we have been seeing from the U.S. in recent months," Freeman added, referring to Trump's relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

He suggested that the true gauge of the U.S.'s motivations, and Egypt's compliance to these pressures, could be seen in the latter's ongoing relationship with another of its military allies – and major U.S. adversary – Russia.

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