Later this week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is expected to arrive in Cairo as part of a wider regional tour. Mattis will meet with top Egyptian officials, including President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi.
Mattis's trip comes two weeks after El-Sisi himself visited Washington, his first visit to the Oval Office since he came to office in June 2014 in the wake of turbulent political change in Egypt.
Before meeting President Donald Trump in Washington the two men had exchanged positive statements that reflected mutual understanding and appreciation and promised a new beginning for bilateral relations which had gone through a low during the last few years due to the political hesitation that the administration of former President Barack Obama showed after the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 and the subsequent political developments in the country.
Today, Egyptian officials are talking about a new beginning that should bring about unprecedentedly close cooperation between Cairo and Washington.
However, for political scientist Ibrahim Awad, this is a general statement that needs to be taken with a grain of salt because upgrading the relations between Egypt and the US is a very profound process that requires clear and compatible visions on the part of both countries.
“I think we have to be a little bit careful here; while it is very obvious that there is a marked difference in the vibes of relations between Cairo and Washington with the advent of the Donald Trump administration, it is not clear yet what each country is really expecting of the other and how far either country will go to meet the expectations of the other,” Awad told Ahram Online.
According to Awad, the need to clarify the expectations of both sides is equally about the bilateral and the regional context.
“For example, when the US said it would offer Egypt unprecedented support, what does this really mean? And also what does the US mean when it talks about the crucial regional role that Egypt should be playing?” he said.
“I am not sure actually that the Trump definition of Egypt’s ‘crucial regional role’ is really compatible with the regional role that Egypt would perceive for itself or could play - especially when it comes for example to the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, where Trump seems inclined to fall almost fully in line with the Israeli vision,” Awad added.
“Egypt, when all is said and done, cannot be expected to be the one to ‘deliver’ the Palestinians; and I am not sure that this is possible anyway and I am certain that no matter the pressures the Palestinian people would not bow – not even in the unlikely case of having Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas bowing to a deal that is fully tailored to fit the Israeli vision for the future of the struggle,” he argued.
According to Awad this would also apply to the "counter terrorism" front that is expected by concerned officials to be the number one item on the agenda of talks that Mattis will hold during his regional tour, including in Cairo.
“Egypt does have a big concern over terrorism, not just within its borders, but also at the regional level; but then again what is the role that the US is expecting of Egypt on this front and what are the limitations that Egypt cannot bypass in terms of living up to the challenge of IS?" Awad said. "This is not a small or marginal question at all."
This too, Awad argued, would apply when it comes to examining matters related to “things like the free trade area that Egypt would like to have with the US because for the US this would mean that Egypt would absolutely have to observe certain regulations related to labour laws and the freedoms of workers' unions, or like the IT transfer; that would mean that Egypt would have to be open and inviting for American private sector companies to come and work here and this, for example, is not particularly compatible with the state of emergency that was just imposed in Egypt.”
It is clear, Awad said, that “official Cairo” is “only too comfortable” to have a new US administration that would not put too much pressure on matters related to human rights, political diversity and so on.
“This seems to be the case with the Trump administration – at least for now, we are not expecting any serious pressure on these matter and certainly not in the public sphere,” he stated.
However, he added that it would be a mistake for Egyptians to expect Washington to fully remove the item of human rights from the agenda of discussion topics for long.
Awad argued that matters related to human rights and democratic rule would have to come up in a systematic fashion that would go beyond a reference to one particular case or the other, or to Egyptian-American nationals.
“It is not about Aya Hegazi or anyone else in particular, at least not for long; it is rather about the fact that matters related to human rights and democracy are essential for US foreign policy – regardless of whatever criticism we might have on the actual practices that the US is involved in,” he argued.
On Sunday, an Egyptian court acquitted Egyptian-American Aya Hegazi and four other Egyptians had set up an NGO that catered to homeless children, of charges of child-trafficking that had kept the five young people in jail for three years.
The word is the civil society community was clear: the case against Hegazi and her co-workers was always weak and Trump had to bow to internal Washington pressure and to ask El-Sisi during his visit to the US to attend to the matter.
According to Awad, “this is precisely the point; the US president rules through the administration and he keeps an eye on the Congress and the press, and he will always have to bring up matters related to democracy and human rights.”
Moreover, he added, “Trump should not be taken for his electoral promises; those will not necessarily stand now that he is in the Oval Office and listening to the advice of his aides and coming under the pressure of Congress.”
The stand on Syria, according to Awad, should serve as a clear reminder of how the US president will ultimately behave.
Trump had repeatedly said both before and after he was elected president that the US should not have any military role in Syria.
However, less than two weeks ago, in the wake of two consecutive meetings with El-Sisi and Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington, Trump ordered a missile strike against an airport controlled by Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, in retaliation to Assad's alleged use of this airport to launch chemical attacks against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun.
“We saw a considerable change in the position of Trump on Syria in a matter of few days; this is not just about the way Trump is or the way he acts; it is essentially about how politics are managed in the US,” Awad said.
Awad is also curious about how Egypt, on the official front, will manage to reconcile its call for an exceptionally close rapport with the Trump administration with the firm positions that Trump has on refugees, the developing countries and on Islam.
“Trump has crucial positions there and they are for the most part not very favourable positions,” Awad said.
“So, I think that while trying to re-write its relations with the US, Egypt will need to think thoroughly about how it would react should Trump act in line” with his announced unfavourable principles on any of these matters.
“Egypt had to think a lot about how to react to the US strikes on Syria when they happened,” he said.
“I think, realistically speaking, it would be a mistake to assume that Trump will not surprise Cairo again and it is better for Egypt to be ready with a clear-vision policy than to be taken off guard, as was the case with the Syria strikes.”
Ultimately, Awad said, Egypt has a legitimate interest in upgrading its relations with the US, but for this to happen Egypt needs to decide what it could really take and what it could really offer - “realistically, and now rather than later.”
“For example, officials should decide whether it is really worthwhile for them to put pressure on the US to announce the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror organisation in view of the realistic chances of this happening and the actual benefits that this would bring to Egypt,” he said.
“What is the point of asking the US, for example, to pressure Turkey or England to handover Muslim Brotherhood leaders? Why do we want to have more leaders in prisons and how do we think we are going to handle this file long-term? And is it really worth the diplomatic investment there?”
According to Awad, one of the worst things that Egypt could do while trying to upgrade the profile of its cooperation with the US is to constraint its expectations to some very narrow demands that relate to a particular point of an internal political issue.
Moreover, he insisted, if Egypt is really serious about pursuing a new chapter of relations with the US, it needs to think in global terms, and for the long haul.
“There has to be a clear vision with an eye on the future and on the real fundamental interests that are compatible with our status as a leading regional state – no matter the current economic challenges or political squabbles,” Awad said.