The upcoming announcement of the American plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, tensions in the US-Turkish relationship, Israeli elections, Washington’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, ongoing US interest in strengthening the coalition against terrorism despite Trump’s claim that the war against Islamic State (IS) is over, the rush of developments on the ground in Libya after Khalifa Haftar moved to liberate Tripoli from militias and ongoing demonstrations demanding change in Algeria and Sudan are only some of salient phenomena that frame the context of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Washington.
There is also the threat Iran poses to Washington’s interests as well as those of its Arab allies. Tehran’s drive to obtain nuclear status and its support for terrorist organisations that have worked to destabilise Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya pose a grave danger, one aggravated by Tehran’s pursuit of stronger alliances with both Russia and Turkey.
Egypt is not only central to offsetting the dangers threatening the region, it is a cornerstone in building the broad coalition, including moderate Arab states and Israel, necessary to deter Iran from pressing ahead with a strategy that, if undeterred, will plunge the region into a full-scale war.
But for Egypt to be effective in helping protect the region from the Iranian peril and the terrorists Tehran supports, Washington must first appreciate the importance of domestic stability in Egypt and, secondly, the need not to involve Egypt in major concessions in connection with the Palestinian cause.
With respect to the first, rights advocacy organisations and research centres in the US have, as always, launched a campaign against the Egyptian president in advance of his visit. They marshalled the usual clichés on democracy and human rights, as can be seen in the editorial “A New Egyptian Power Play”, penned by the New York Times’ editorial board, to urge the US government to use the threat of withholding military aid as a way to compel President Al-Sisi to free detainees, prevent torture in prisons and stop the referendum on constitutional amendments.
The problem with such an argument is that it is based on unfounded and unacceptable generalisations. President Al-Sisi’s supporters in Egypt have long insisted that organisations such as the New York Times and the human rights groups provide names, dates of arrest, legal status and other concrete evidence to corroborate their claims that more than 60,000 Egyptians have been jailed. The burden of proof, after all, is on the accuser. The accused are innocent until proven otherwise.
Although Egypt, the victim of numerous slur campaigns of this sort, has reiterated these principles on numerous occasions, none of the agencies pressuring Trump to punish Egypt have furnished evidence to sustain their claims. Surely, it is only right for President Al-Sisi to ask his counterpart in Washington to pressure newspapers and other organisations to at least to check their facts before clamouring to punish Egypt.
On the referendum on constitutional amendments it appears that the same newspapers and organisations have decided to exercise a political role beyond their legal or moral remit. Countries with political party plurality, periodic elections, elected legislatures and the like are, by definition, democratic.
No foreign agency has the right to cite “democratic” pretexts in order to meddle in the national institutions of another state.
The proposed amendments and the need for them at this time were debated at length in parliament. Opponents of the amendments aired their views in the press and on social media without impediment or harassment, with the sole exception of a handful of individuals who took advantage of the situation to commit crimes such as slander and incitement to violence. But rights organisations have repeatedly attempted to confuse the issues by suggesting that the arrest of such individuals had to do with their opposition to the amendments. What they did not do was to attempt to answer the very logical question as to why thousands of others, who expressed the same if not more radical opinions, were not arrested.
The constitutional amendments are a domestic concern and should not be exploited to impose international political agendas. They are necessary in the framework of Egypt’s domestic stability needs. Terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their jihadist and anarchistic allies, continue to pose a grave risk to the security of Egypt and the entire Middle East.
To ignore such dangers on the pretext of enabling democratic transformation is to play with the fate of the peoples of this region, rehashing slogans that have been used many times in the past and which have invariably produced catastrophic results. It is enough, here, to point to how the US and other Western countries relied on the uncorroborated reports of human rights organisations to encourage the Islamist movements involved in the Arab Spring revolutions. Among the consequences were the destabilisation of Yemen, Syria and Libya, millions of displaced people and refugees, and the death of more than a million in less than eight years. Demands for human rights caused far greater human rights violations than those perpetrated by the purportedly dictatorial regimes.
The lesson to be learned here is that stability is the greatest bulwark against human rights violations. As for the goal to eliminate human rights abuses, that is best achieved by promoting development which can never happen in the absence of stability.
Stability in Egypt is not just necessary to improve domestic circumstances, it is essential to ensure control over the pernicious interplays that jeopardise the interests of the region. Only then will it be possible to drive back Iran, restrain Turkey and curtail the Russian role. Moreover, in view of the situations in Libya, Algeria and Sudan, it is essential to bolster Egypt and safeguard its stability as a precaution against further possible deterioration in countries which could propel the whole region towards chaos.
An important aspect of this vision has to do with the US plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — what has been dubbed the Deal of the Century. Although it is premature to speak of how Egypt will respond to it since the details have not yet been divulged, it should be borne in mind that sustaining Egyptian stability and strengthening its regional role will not be achieved by pressuring it to take a stand that will undermine its image and influence on this issue.
President Trump must realise that Egypt can only support a peace project that meets the greater portion of Palestinian aspirations.
In taking his decisions regarding Jerusalem, UNRWA funding and the Golan Heights, President Trump overused the “stick” against the Palestinians and the Arabs. Now is the time to use the “carrot” in order to entice the Palestinians into accepting a project that meets the minimum level of their hopes and offers the promise of large influxes of aid and US and regional protection for the Palestinian resolve to end the conflict. If the Palestinians accept such a solution, Egypt can play constructive role.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Facing Reality