US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Cairo late Sunday with a fully-packed agenda, covering bilateral relations and volatile regional issues such as the Middle East peace process, Libya and Syria.
Tillerson chose to start with Cairo at the beginning of a regional tour that includes Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey, reflecting the strong and strategic ties between the two countries over the past four decades.
Tillerson’s regional tour did not include Israel, even though the visit came just two days after an unprecedented escalation between Tel Aviv and Damascus when an Israeli fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defences while carrying out a raid inside Syria. Israel claimed it was targeting Iranian locations in Syria that posed a threat to its security.
In a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri on Monday, the chief US diplomat confirmed Washington stood by Egypt in its fight against terrorism, only a few days after Egypt’s army launched a major operation against terrorist groups in Sinai and across the country. Shoukri and Tillerson delivered a message on Monday that relations remained strong between the two countries. “We agreed we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures,” Tillerson said.
“Egypt deals with the threats of IS themselves and are dealing with it certainly currently in the Sinai,” the US secretary of state said. “The US commitment in continuing to support Egypt in its fight against terrorism and bringing security for the Egyptian people is steadfast and will continue,” he added.
After meeting Shoukri, Tillerson also held talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Al-Sisi confirmed Egypt’s official stand on the need to reach a just and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people, “including their right to have their own independent state over the lines of 4 June 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said.
US President Donald Trump dealt a strong blow to efforts to renew peace talks between Palestine and Israel following his unilateral decision in early December to recognise East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the occupied city. Even though Congress passed a resolution in 1995 to move the embassy to East Jerusalem, all former US presidents have signed waivers to postpone the move, recognising that it would jeopardise US credibility as an honest broker in the peace talks.
East Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, is considered holy to more than one billion Muslims worldwide, and Trump’s support for Israel’s claim over the occupied city practically ended prospects to revive peace talks that have stalled since 2014.
According to Radi, Al-Sisi said he expected the US, being the main sponsor of the peace process that started in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians at the White House, to work on reviving negotiations “on the basis of international legitimacy resolutions”.
Radi said that Al-Sisi praised Egypt’s strategic ties with the US, covering several key aspects, including the fight against terrorism, regional peace and bilateral economic cooperation. He added that Tillerson confirmed to Al-Sisi that Trump’s administration “remained committed to finding a just solution for the Palestinian issue, and that it will continue its effort to achieve this goal”.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was in Moscow when Tillerson arrived in Cairo, has stated that Trump’s decision on Jerusalem raised serious doubts over Washington’s ability to play the role of mediator and peace sponsor and asked for the involvement of the international community to bring Israel to accept international legitimacy decisions, which call on Israel to withdraw from all territories it occupied following the June 1967 War.
Abbas refused to meet US Vice President Mike Pence during his recent visit to the region, or any other senior US official. Trump responded by threatening to close down the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington and decided to cut by more than half the US contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency that provides vital health and education services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Tillerson said Washington remained committed to working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, adding that Trump’s decision on Jerusalem in December did not set final boundaries for the city and that Washington believes it has an “important role to play to bring a resolution” to the crisis.
Egypt’s ties with Washington have improved after Trump took office more than a year ago. Former US president Barack Obama had been critical of the army’s intervention in July 2013 which removed president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi following widespread popular protests against his inefficient and sectarian rule. Obama also repeatedly criticised Egypt’s human rights record and did not receive President Al-Sisi at the White House during his second term in office.
Trump, however, has maintained warm relations with Al-Sisi ever since the two met for the first time while he was still a candidate in the US elections in September 2016. Al-Sisi was among the first foreign leaders to be received by Trump at the White House, and the two consult regularly over the phone and in bilateral meetings. However, Cairo, like all Arab and Muslim capitals, was critical of Trump’s decision on East Jerusalem, and warned of its consequences.
Facing pressure from Congress over Egypt’s human rights record, the Trump administration suspended part of the annual military aid provided to Egypt since 1979 after the signing of the Camp David agreement with Israel. Egypt receives some $1.3 billion in military aid from the US annually.
Even though several leading US senators have been critical of the way presidential elections in Egypt are to be held in late March, with just two candidates — President Al-Sisi being one of them — Tillerson’s comments were reserved during his joint news conference with Shoukri. Asked about concerns over the election, Tillerson said the United States supported a credible, transparent vote in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. He stressed a need for free and fair elections in all countries.
“We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections not just in Egypt but in any country,” Tillerson said.
In response to a question by a US reporter on human rights reports that point to a deteriorating record, Shoukri rejected the accusations. He said the Egyptian people “have shown their commitment and their determination and their ability to change their course and to indicate their dissatisfaction. If they deemed that they were dissatisfied, they have been able to change two governments in the last seven years, and they have undertaken legislative elections and know how to protect their rights and to advocate for those rights.”
He added, “so it’s important that we recognise that it is the Egyptian people who should determine how they are applying their freedoms and their political activism, and I hope that you will have the opportunity while you’re here in Egypt to discuss this with the Egyptians on the street and ascertain from them directly whether they are satisfied with current conditions.”
Later, a senior State Department official told Reuters that some of the issues “pending” in the US-Egyptian relationship included a law regulating non-governmental organisations, concerns over civil society and “democratic process baskets”. The issue of American nationals detained in Egypt was also raised.
The official described the meetings with the Egyptians as “a positive, substantive engagement on both sides. And from that we have to hope that similarly, there will be positive, substantive movement.”
Tillerson said the US was also keen to continue supporting Egypt in its economic recovery, after the country implemented tough economic reforms backed by a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
Shoukri said Cairo and Washington had agreed to hold strategic talks at the level of foreign ministers in the second half of this year. The two sides also agreed to consider a new formula to strengthen dialogue between the two countries, holding joint meetings among foreign and defence ministers, or 2+2.
Besides bilateral and regional issues, Shoukri’s talks with Tillerson also covered increasing demands in Washington that Cairo suspends its ties with North Korea. “Egypt has had normal diplomatic ties with North Korea, as does many Western and NATO members, and those ties are, in terms of the relationship, limited to representation, and there is almost no existing economic or other areas of cooperation,” Shoukri told reporters.
“But we are concerned with the current status with the threats emanating from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a situation which we deem as threatening to the global non-proliferation regime, one that has to be dealt within our maintaining global security… also the threats of ballistic missile systems to South Korea and to Japan, and we believe that all of these issues must be resolved for the security of the region and the Korean Peninsula,” he added.
The US has become more embroiled, diplomatically and militarily, in regional conflicts since Trump took office. It stepped up support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria before its NATO ally Turkey began a military operation against them last month. It has also forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states while taking a tougher line against Iran since Trump took office.
Tillerson’s stop in Turkey is expected to be among the most difficult on his Middle East tour, considering US support for the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Ankara fears the Syrian Kurdish militia would provide a backdoor for Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to threaten its border and launch operations.
Tillerson left Cairo for Kuwait where he attended a conference on Iraqi reconstruction after the defeat of IS and ending its control over Mosul.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly