Before President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s latest visit to Washington, Egyptian opposition groups had placed their bets on a confrontational meeting between El-Sisi and US President Donald Trump over issues of human rights and democracy in Egypt.
Trump made no mention whatsoever of the two subjects when he received El-Sisi, much to the disappointment of Egyptian opposition blocs as well as US pressure groups, local and international rights groups, publications and research centres with affiliations to countries hostile to Egypt that had bet on the same game.
Contrary to their expectations, Trump commended El-Sisi’s policies, saying bilateral relations were at their best.
These groups cited three incidents in their futile attempt to proveEl-Sisi’s visit to Washington was a failure. The encounter between the Egypt and US delegations was said to have lasted only 17 minutes; Reuters’ claim that it had received affirmation from its sources that the Egyptian president refused to join the Arab alliance — known in the media as the Arab NATO — that the US is trying to establish to challenge Iran, thus explaining why the meeting between the two presidents was short; and statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a few hours after El-Sisi left Washington.
Pompeo told the US Senate that Cairo could face sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if the Sukhoi Su-35 order was completed.
Cairo agreed to purchase more than 20 aircraft and weapons from Russia worth $2 billion at the end of 2018, part of a broader policy to diversify the sources of weaponry used by its Armed Forces.
Supposing this Arab NATO project does exist, there are no official details regarding its nature from neither the Egyptian nor US sides.
Presidential meetings to discuss strategic projects such as an alliance against Iran are usually held after joint teams reach a unified vision as to the specific, minute details of the points of agreements and differences of the project’s goals, means to establish it and the responsibilities shouldered by each party.
Therefore, it is illogical to build on the said timeframe that Egypt and the US differed on one or more points related to the project. It is also difficult to fathom that El-Sisi travelled to Washington just to inform Trump of his rejection of that alliance. The Egyptian president could have delivered his disapproval via diplomatic media.
Furthermore, it is incomprehensible that El-Sisi hid his intentions to refuse the project from Trump, making the US president believe his visit to Washington was to declare his approval, and implicating him in issuing positive statements on close Egyptian-US ties.
Leaders may lie to their peoples, but they don’t lie to each other, wrote John Mearsheimer in his book Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics.
Most probably the El-Sisi-Trump talks in Washington focused on subjects they shared in common, particularly amid Middle East tensions of concern to the two countries. As far as disagreements on issues such as the Palestinian cause, the US stance on the Golan Heights and Jerusalem and the fate of the “deal of the century” are concerned, bilateral communication is held around the clock on all levels. Such issues can only be resolved when Trump officially announces his plan for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Hence, there is no need to try to build biased expectations or hastily read between the lines of the one-on-one meeting.
Regarding Washington’s objection to Egypt’s weapons deal with Russia, the subject was the only issue invoking an official statement on the part of Pompeo. It is important to note, though, the statement was made after El-Sisi wrapped up his US visit, not while he was in Washington. This is a clear indication the Trump administration was careful not to spoil the visit.
Another point worth noting: Pompeo said “Cairo ‘could’ face sanctions”, indicating a potentiality within the context of US laws related to general cases, and not specific to Egypt.
We will have to await the interpretation of US legislation regarding this matter and whether it applies to Egypt. Meanwhile, we will observe moves by Congressmen to read into how the Russian weaponry deal will affect the multi-faceted Egypt-US relations, taking into consideration that arrangements between the White House, Congress and the Pentagon always pave the groundwork for minimising tension in Egyptian-US relationships. This is likely to happen in the near future.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Illogical arguments on Egypt, US