“We take the opportunity today to celebrate the progress we have made and to emphasise our unwavering dedication to pursuing a more comprehensive peace in the region that respects the dignity and security of all involved,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement after meeting last week in Washington with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Shoukri was in Washington to prepare for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to the US, scheduled for next week.
Al-Sisi’s trip comes at a delicate moment. As 2017 came to a close US President Donald Trump acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A few months later he moved the US Embassy to Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Last month he decided to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
Speculation has also swirled around the so-called deal of the century — the Trump administration’s plan, about which nothing is known apart from a few unconfirmed leaks, to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — devised by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and White House Middle East peace negotiator Jason Greenblatt.
Ali Hefni, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, stresses that Egyptian-US relations remain strong. Both states, he says, have managed to cooperate in the past and coordinate their stands on pressing regional issues.
“Unfortunately, Washington’s take on peace in the region is not helping. Egypt’s position is very clear: the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan are occupied Arab territories, as UN resolutions have repeatedly confirmed.”
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi restated Egypt’s position at this week’s Arab Summit in Tunisia, and is expected to press the point during his meeting with Trump next week.
One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, worried about what Washington might do next. Egypt and other Arab states adhere to UN resolutions and the Arab peace initiative as the basis for resolving the conflict — ie they predicate normalising relations with Israel on the return of all occupied territories.
“My worst fear is that soon there will not be any occupied territories to return,” he said.
In last week’s two-day visit in which he met with Pompeo, senior US officials and members of Congress, Shoukri brought up the Golan Heights. In his meeting with Pompeo Shoukri said: “Egypt’s stance towards the Golan Heights is consistent. The Golan is occupied Arab land, as recognised under international law and in UN resolutions.”
The two officials discussed how to advance regional security and stability and agreed on intensifying political consultations.
Pompeo also congratulated Egypt on the 40th anniversary of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
The Golan Heights and building peace in the region were also addressed during Shoukri’s meeting with US National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Hafez said Shoukri had underlined the Golan Heights’ status as occupied Arab land and held firm to the Egyptian position that a two-state solution must be implemented on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.
The Arab-Israeli peace settlement is not the only difference between Cairo and Washington. US aid to Egypt and Cairo’s human rights record are also contentious issues.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of US foreign assistance. Israel is the first.
Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty the US has provided Egypt with more than $40 billion in military aid and $30 billion in economic assistance.
In August 2017 the US withheld $200 million in aid because of alleged human right violations. The money was released a year later but the move is seen as a precedent. Some $1.38 billion has been requested for 2019.
Egypt has been accused repeatedly of violating human rights. Some commentators argue the allegations are exaggerated, inaccurate and politicised, and are a pretext to call for reducing aid to Egypt in order to pressure Cairo into adopting particular positions.
The two countries do seem to see eye-to-eye on combating terrorism and countering the Iranian hegemony.
Pompeo reiterated Washington’s commitment to countering terrorism and Iranian influence during his visit to Egypt in January.
In a controversial speech delivered at the American University in Cairo during his visit Pompeo said the Trump administration hopes to establish a coalition of GCC states, Egypt and Jordan as a counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions.
“In short, both countries may agree to differ on some issues but common interests and the will to keep the region stable compel them to cooperate,” says Hefni.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Promoting mutual interest