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Kerry visit doesn't signal US policy shift on Egypt: Sources

New US state secretary's visit to Egypt next month unlikely to be accompanied by major shift in Washington's stance on Egypt's political trajectory, say well-informed sources

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 26 Feb 2013
Secretary of Stae John Kerry (Photo: Reuters)
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US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected in Cairo next month. The visit comes amid US apprehension over recent political developments in Egypt, but without any apparent intention on Washington's part to endorse a shift in Egypt's current political trajectory, according to informed sources.

One US diplomat asserted that Kerry wasn't coming to Cairo to upbraid Egyptian authorities, but rather to reaffirm Washington's interest in seeing a "stable" Egypt that remained on the democratic track.

According to an Egyptian presidential source, the Egyptian side is currently preparing answers to expected questions from Kerry about "allegations of the Muslim Brotherhood's attempted monopolisation of the political scene and the issue of deteriorating human rights."

The same source noted: "We heard similar questions a few weeks ago during a visit by [US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour] Michael Posner."

At a meeting between Posner and Essam Hadad, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's foreign policy advisor, such questions were raised explicitly. They were coupled with remarks by the visiting US official regarding increasing concern in US Congress over the "current situation in Egypt."

Informed US government sources say such concerns initially surfaced among Republicans, but had since crossed the aisle and were now being voiced by Democrats as well.

Indeed, Khairat El-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's number-two, is said to have heard from US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson that Kerry's appointment would mean that the Muslim Brotherhood could expect a tougher time from Washington.

"Unlike [outgoing US state secretary] Hillary Clinton, Kerry won't be satisfied with the Brotherhood's management and containment of Hamas in Gaza," said one Egyptian diplomatic source. "He will also want more in terms of Egypt's domestic situation. Indeed, he won't be as restrained in his reactions as Clinton was regarding clashes between protestors and police outside Egypt's presidential palace."

Patterson's role, meanwhile, will likely remain useful to the Muslim Brotherhood's goal of maintaining well-managed relations with the US.

According to several Cairo-based foreign diplomats and Muslim Brotherhood sources, Patterson proved extremely helpful in establishing a rapport between the Brotherhood and Washington following Morsi's assumption of the presidency last summer.

Some of these sources pointed out that Patterson had played an "influential" role in tempering US scepticism regarding the Brotherhood's recent political ascendancy, even going so far as to urge Washington to show restraint when the US Embassy in Cairo became the target of heated anti-US demonstrations last September.

"Patterson found that the stances adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood warranted US restraint," said one Western ambassador based in Cairo. "She knows that every time she calls on El-Shater, her appeals are accommodated; the two seem to have a good chemistry."

According to Ashraf Swelam, a political commentator with extended diplomatic experience in Egypt-US relations, Patterson "continues to view the Brotherhood as the only game in town, save for the military. From her point of view, shared by many in Washington, the opposition is too weak and unorganized to present a credible ballot-box alternative"

Swelam, for his part, doesn't subscribe to the theory – popular in certain quarters – that it was Patterson who pressured Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Military Council to declare Morsi the winner in Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential elections last summer, when the Brotherhood candidate narrowly defeated Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

"If such conversations took place, and I have every reason to believe they did, I can assure you it wasn't about dictating a winner. It was more about making sure that the vote count reflected the votes casted" said Swelam. "At the end of the day, Americans will deal with whoever comes to power."

This being said, informed sources say that the Patterson/El-Shater relationship never came at the expense of an equally, if less active, relationship between the US ambassador and the Morsi-appointed Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

"For Patterson, the two most important telephone numbers are those of El-Shater and El-Sisi," said one Western diplomat. "She might have called the former more in recent months, but she will no doubt be calling on El-Sisi more frequently."

According to sources in Washington, the recent US decision to deliver a number of F-16 jetfighters to Egypt – with more scheduled to come later this year – was meant as an American goodwill gesture directed at the Egyptian military.

During his scheduled visit to Cairo, Kerry is expected to reaffirm Washington's keenness to maintain close cooperation and a warm relationship with the Egyptian Armed Forces, which the Americans view as vital to maintaining regional stability.

The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership, meanwhile, has received assurances that Kerry is not coming to announce a change in the US position on Egypt – "at least not right now," said one Brotherhood figure.

However, the group is also well aware that Kerry's visit will come against a backdrop of ongoing political turmoil in Port Said, opposition calls for a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections (slated for late April) and blatant calls from some political quarters for a military coup against the country's first-ever democratically-elected head of state.

What's more, the Kerry visit – the schedule of which has been re-worked several times due to developments in Egypt – comes after Washington's request to delay Morsi's expected visit this spring to the US. "The president may make the trip in July," according to one Egyptian official.

The big question that the Egyptian government and the Brotherhood will try to answer in their talks with the visiting US state secretary is whether Washington is reconsidering its plan to give political Islam a chance in the so-called 'Arab Spring' countries. This comes in light of recent signs of a possible shift in US policy in this regard resulting from fears of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's possible ascent to power in Damascus.

The US diplomat told Ahram Online that no policy changes should be expected to come out of Kerry's visit next month.

Western diplomats in Cairo, meanwhile, including Americans, say they are closely following Morsi's domestic performance – with "a great deal of anticipation" in the words of one diplomat.

That being said, certain policies may be revisited in the fall provided that no major crises – socio-economic or political – occur before then.


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