President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is on an African-American tour this week. Guinea was the first leg of the tour, followed by the US. Later he will visit Senegal and the Ivory Coast.
The West African tour underlines Egypt’s keenness to coordinate with African states, particularly on the trade, investment and economic fronts, Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said ahead of the tour.
Al-Sisi’s visit to the US, meanwhile, is significant because it is the first meeting between the US president and an Arab leader since last month’s Arab League Summit in Tunisia reaffirmed that the Golan Heights was occupied land and insisted on a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, says Tarek Fahmi, head of the Israeli Research Unit at the National Centre for Middle East Studies.
The visit will address possible regional changes following the announcement of the so-called deal of the century. According to Fahmi, the US is likely to present its vision for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issue soon, and the US administration will enter the period of meeting promises already made rather than presenting more promises.
A diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed that the visit comes at an important juncture, a time when the US must begin making its position on regional peace clear.
“We will not be able to say the visit has been fruitful unless we see clear US proposals based on the Arab peace initiative,” he said.
The president’s visit to Washington, his second since coming to power and his sixth meeting with US President Donald Trump, comes within the context of enhancing the strategic relations that have bound the two states for decades.
Commenting on the visit, the White House said the two leaders would discuss building on their robust military, economic and counter-terrorism cooperation, regional economic integration, and “Egypt’s longstanding role as a lynchpin of regional stability”.
Fahmi expects regional issues to take precedence over bilateral relations given the pressing nature of the problems facing the Middle East. The two leaders were expected to discuss the situation in Syria, Libya and Yemen as well as counter-terrorism efforts.
On Monday President Al-Sisi met the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the president’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. In both meetings he emphasised Egypt’s stand that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can only be resolved through a two-state solution as stated in the Arab peace initiative.
Trump’s official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights spread anger across the Middle East.
The visit also comes as parliament is in the final stages of ratifying amendments to Egypt’s constitution which, if adopted in a referendum scheduled for later this month, will extend the president’s stay in office.
It is not clear yet how the US administration will react to the amendments, added the diplomat.
Egyptian-US relations have improved under Trump and the US decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty on the Golan may, like Trump’s earlier decision to move the Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem, have little impact on this trajectory.
Though Egyptian-US relations have fluctuated since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel they have always been described by officials from both states as strategic, close and special.
Egypt is the largest recipient of foreign assistance from the US after Israel and currently receives $1.3 billion a year in military aid. Since the 1979 peace treaty, the US has provided Cairo with more than $40 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance.
In August 2017 the US held $200 million in aid because of alleged human right violations in Egypt. Though the amount was released within 12 months the delay is seen as a precedent. Military aid for 2019 has been set at $1.38 billion.
THE AFRICAN LEG: Cairo has prioritised improving relations with African states, and Egypt currently chairs the African Union. This is the backdrop to President Al-Sisi’s visit to Guinea and, following his return from the US, to Senegal and Ivory Coast.
“Al-Sisi’s talks in the three West African nations will focus on bilateral relations and regional issues in light of Egypt’s current chairmanship of the African Union,” said Radi before the tour began.
The visits seek to promote development initiatives and boost trade between Egypt and African countries.
“At a time when negotiations with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam are stalling, good relations with other African states can be used as a trump card by Egypt,” said the diplomat.
Fahmi agrees that good relation with other African states will give Egypt weight in the continent and improve its negotiating position.
With these targets in mind, Al-Sisi’s tour included bilateral talks with the leaders of Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal to discuss ways to maximise the benefits of Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU.
President Al-Sisi called for African solidarity in the face of continental challenges and urged hard work to achieve social and economic justice in the continent, said Radi.
In the Guinean capital Conakry, a statue of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was unveiled in the presence of Al-Sisi and his Guinean counterpart Alpha Condé.
The statue adorns the university named after Nasser in 1970, Guinea’s first and largest higher education facility.
The two leaders inaugurated a new complex at the university named after President Al-Sisi. Al-Sisi also received the National Order of Merit from Guinea during his visit.
The last time an Egyptian president visited Guinea was in 1965.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Cross continental moves