Owing to political sensitivities following the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi last summer in the wake of mass protests against his rule, the US embassy in Cairo had hitherto declined interviews with the local press because of what it described to be "unfair and inaccurate characterisations of US government positions and policies".
With only two days remaining before Egyptians elect their new president, Ahram Online gains further insight on US-Egypt ties in the first exclusive interview with US Chargé d’Affaires to Egypt, Mr Marc Sievers.
Marc Sievers, minister-counsellor of the Senior Foreign Service, assumed his position as chargé d’affaires in Cairo on 21 January 2014, having previously served as deputy chief of mission since September 2011. Prior to Cairo, Sievers served as political minister-counsellor at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq; counsellor for political affairs in Tel Aviv, Israel; and deputy chief of mission in Algiers, Algeria. Sievers joined the Foreign Service in 1981. He has a BA in History from the University of Utah and a Master’s degree in International Affairs and Middle East Studies from Columbia University.
Ahram Online: Although Egypt and the US have long been allies, many observers believe their current relationship to be at its worst point in history. What has caused the rupture in diplomatic ties?
Marc Sievers: There has been no rupture in diplomatic ties. We look forward to the arrival of Ambassador Beecroft as the next ambassador to Egypt, although we expect it will take some time for the Senate to schedule and vote on his confirmation. Since the departure of Ambassador Patterson last August, we continued to engage in the full range of diplomatic activity. The embassy has been very actively engaged with Egyptian officials and political, economic and cultural leaders and with the Washington policy-making process throughout this time. Defence Secretary Hagel had more telephone conversations with Field Marshal El-Sisi when the latter was defence minister than he had with any other minister of defence in the world. Secretary Kerry speaks to Foreign Minister Fahmy on a regular basis. Secretary Kerry has visited here twice since he became secretary of state, most recently last November.
It is true that our two governments have had their differences over the past few years, and some of those differences have been amplified by the media and public opinion in both countries. But it is important to bear in mind that the United States has a long, close relationship with Egypt that goes back many years, and both countries value this relationship deeply. Since 1975, the United States has contributed about $70 billion in economic and military assistance to Egypt.
Beyond the assistance relationship, the United States is Egypt’s largest trading partner and the second largest source of direct foreign investment. Egypt throughout this period has been a close strategic partner. I look at any current challenges in our relationship through the lens of this historic friendship, and I have confidence that we will be able to work through our differences together. The United States does, and will continue to, support the Egyptian people in their pursuit of a stable, inclusive, and prosperous democratic future.
AO: Numerous Egyptian dignitaries today accuse the US of interfering in domestic policy, propagating biased media coverage, unjustly withholding vital military equipment, supporting the MB’s political bid and providing US asylum to its members. What is your reaction to such accusations?
MS: We embrace freedom of speech, and strongly support the right of Egyptians to criticise us for policies and actions with which they disagree. We do ask, however, that criticism of US policies and actions be based on facts and not conspiracy theories. Since the beginning of the post-revolution series of elections, we have taken the position that we will work with whoever wins free and fair elections, and that is what we have done. It is up to Egyptians – and only Egyptians – to choose their leaders. We have clearly and repeatedly condemned terrorist attacks of all kinds.
At the same time, we have expressed our concerns about infringements on the universally recognised freedoms of peaceful association and speech, and violations of due process such as the mass death sentences recently handed down in two legal cases. Sometimes friends and partners have disagreements or misunderstandings. As partners, however, I believe the US and Egypt must remain committed to working together to resolve those differences.
AO: US criticism last year was linked to Morsi’s deposal as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Does the US still maintain that Morsi should have remained president and completed his four-year term?
MS: We made clear our concerns regarding the events of last summer at the time. We are also well aware that a significant part of the Egyptian public turned against former president Morsi and that Egypt faced a grave political crisis. We continue to stand by the Egyptian people in support of their objective: a successful transition to a democratically elected government.
AO: Will the US cooperate with Egypt's next president?
MS: The US will work with Egypt’s democratically elected president; whichever of the candidates wins the election. It is critical that Egyptians are provided the opportunity to choose their leader through a process that is fair, transparent, and free from intimidation.
AO: Will USAID and military assistance resume as in the past?
MS: Our USAID programmes continue and are a key part of our efforts to help develop the Egyptian economy, create jobs, improve health conditions, and support education. Assistance programmes through USAID have made enormous contributions to public health by improving access to clean drinking water and the disposal of wastewater, as well as to improving telecommunications infrastructure and education, in particular women’s education.
Over the last two years, USAID’s work in the private sector and entrepreneurship has resulted in new jobs or better jobs for over 40,000 people and short-terms jobs for another 20,000.
Our military assistance has been of enormous value to the Egyptian military and your top commanders are well aware of our support for Egypt’s modern, well-equipped and well-trained armed forces. We have worked together closely for years on important shared security initiatives, such as countering terrorism, improving border security, and promoting regional stability. While we face some difficulties today and elements of our military assistance remain suspended, as I indicated earlier I am convinced that we will be able to resolve our differences through engagement and dialogue.
We are counting on this relationship continuing and growing in the spirit of shared interests and mutual respect.
AO: How do you foresee future Egypt-US diplomatic ties? What recommendations do you have for both the Egyptian and US governments to ease diplomatic tensions?
MS: I am confident in a strong future for our bilateral relationship, not only because of the history of that relationship, but because we fundamentally want the same thing: a successful, strong, prosperous and democratic Egypt, which remains a key regional partner for the United States.