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Egypt-US 'strategic dialogue' resumes in the dark

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Cairo on Sunday to discuss 'regional strategic issues'

Omar Halawa, Sunday 26 Jul 2015
John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on the sidelines of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department in Washington February 19, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
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Egyptian-US relations have been witnessing instability since the ouster of Egypt's long term president and US ally, Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011. But on Sunday, a "strategic dialogue" will take place in Cairo between both countries and will be attended by Egypt's foreign minister Sameh Shoukry and his counterpart John Kerry.

The meeting comes amid speculation over the nature of the future relationship between Cairo and Washington.

The meetings that are set to take place over two days are not expected to add much to a bland relationship between the two countries that were once strategic allies, observers say.

In October 2013, the United States announced the suspension of its annual military aid to Egypt in protest at the government's crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July of the same year.

But last March, the Obama administration resumed American aid despite its continuing criticism and "concerns" over Egypt's human rights record. "The resumption of military aid was not a certification that Egypt has made progress toward democracy," the White House said in a statement following the official announcement that aid would resume.

H.A. Hellyer, Arab affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London, believes that Egypt is no longer a top priority for the US's foreign policy agenda.

'More pressing priorities' 

"Egypt used to be among US foreign policy's top five priorities, but now it's not even among the top ten," Hellyer told Ahram Online.

"There are now far more pressing and immediate priorities such as Da’ash [the so-called ‘Islamic State’], the ongoing crisis in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the US's relationship with Iran. So, the real question now is: in what way is Egypt important to DC at the moment, while attention is being dragged to other places?" he added.

Last May, the White House submitted a report on Egypt to Congress, explaining that, despite the human rights abuses and "arbitrary or unlawful killings " that are taking place, "Egypt is nevertheless too important to national security to end the roughly $1.5 billion a year it receives in American aid, most of it military."

"There are several bodies in the U.S which define the relationship with Egypt: the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department being most key," Hellyer said.

"I believe that they all recognize that Cairo’s current political dispensation is not changing anytime soon, and so they’ve opted, some reluctantly by default, to engage with Cairo as a regional actor that they have some common interests with.

"Kerry is not coming to Cairo to focus much on human rights violations or democratic transition issues. Those might come up, but the point of the visit is more about discussing regional strategic issues,” Hellyer added.

Since El-Sisi came to office in June 2014, the first face off took place between the two countries last September when Egypt refused to join the 60-plus country coalition formed by the U.S to curb IS in Iraq and Syria despite the participation of some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

A high profile Egyptian official told AFP that Egypt will only participate "politically" in the fights against IS as it believes that any military move needs to be certified by a decree issued by the United Nations and the Security Council.

Some local press reports said that Egypt declined to participate in this coalition in order to protest the suspension of U.S military aid to the country. 

Last February, the Egyptian Air Force carried out airstrikes on IS targets in Libya in response to the slaughter of 21 Coptic Egyptian workers in the coastal city of Derna. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast website that "We are neither condemning nor condoning the Egyptian airstrikes."

But for Ahmed Rakha Hassan, a former ambassador and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA), the idea of the U.S supporting Egypt against its war on terror or vice versa is not only relevant to military cooperation, but also helpful to the two countries since they both need to end the phenomenon of terrorism through "intellectual solutions designed to combat extremism."

"Generally speaking, the new foreign policy trend is that you can find two countries dealing with each other and cooperating on certain issues while disagreeing on other issues at the same time," he explained.

"The US cannot afford to lose an important strategic leader like Egypt for political reasons. Egypt has cooperated with some NATO coalition countries such as Italy despite illegal immigration issues as well as recent military cooperation and weaponry deals with France. So I think that the Americans will identify what they can gain from Egypt right now and upon this a new relationship will be drafted," Hassan added.

Hassan went on to explain that Kerry himself said earlier this year that the U.S would be open to conducting talks with al-Assad's regime to end the Syrian crisis, meaning that the U.S could use Egypt as a mediator since Cairo's stance towards the ruling regime in Syria is neutral and at the same time it has been hosting Syrian fractions talks.

"Egypt also might use the deal sealed with Iran to ask the U.S to apply the concept of prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East on Israel as well," Hassan said as he described this issue as an "Arab demand adopted by Egypt."

Meanwhile, Azzmy Khalifa, Head of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, believes that although Sunday's dialogue has no specific agenda, Egypt has to gain from it and read between lines what it can gain and offer to the U.S in the future.

"This dialogue used to occur regularly since the late 1990s when Amr Moussa served as foreign minister, but I believe we never dealt with its results and built upon it correctly. I hope we can do that this time," he told Ahram Online.
   

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