As Pence heads to Cairo, are today's Egyptian-American relations simply transactional?

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 17 Jan 2018

The timing and agenda of the Pence visit to Cairo reveal much about the current profile of Egyptian-American relations

Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence waves as he walks on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 3, 2018 (Photo: AP)

Following a delay accompanied by much speculation US Vice President Mike Pence is now scheduled to arrive in the Middle East for a three-leg visit, beginning in Egypt on 20 January and then taking in Jordan and Israel.

He is expected to meet Al-Sisi for a few hours in Al-Ittahidiya Palace.

The Pence visit, originally scheduled for 20 December, was delayed following US President Donald Trump’s announcement Washington would acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transfer the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

In protest at the US violation of the principle of the peace talks — the status of Jerusalem, the eastern part of which was occupied by Israel during the June 1967 War, was supposed to be decided in final status negotiations according to the timetable of negotiations set out by the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991— Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced he would not meet with Pence.

On Sunday Abbas again criticised the position of the US president, branding Trump’s policies and statements on the Middle East as shameful.

In a speech before the Palestinian Central Council Abbas insisted he would not bow to pressure from Washington.

“Abbas has been pressed by leading Arab capitals to meet with Pence but insists he will not,” said an informed Palestinian source. “Abbas cannot accept the offer of a non-viable Palestinian state on bits and pieces of Palestinian territory occupied in 1967 and he cannot accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has said this in so many words to the Arab leaders who have been trying to convince him to show more ‘realism’.”

But Trump is not taking no for an answer, say informed Middle East-based Western sources, and Pence is certain to bring up the issue with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan during his trip.

That said, Western and Egyptian sources both agree it would be wrong to assume Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will top the agenda of the Pence-Sisi talks, “especially in view of the hesitant Israeli position on negotiating with Abbas, an old and ailing man with hardly any serious constituency”, as one Western source put it.

In Egypt Pence’s agenda will include the fate of US economic and military aid to Egypt which has been paid since the 1979 signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Last year the Trump administration cut part of the military aid. Washington said the decision was a reaction to Egypt’s hesitant moves on human rights. Informed sources in Cairo and Washington, however, say it was military cooperation between Egypt and North Korea to which the US really objected.

Today, according to Egyptian sources, the issue has, for the most part, been “managed”.

“Cairo chose to prioritise its interests with the US and acted accordingly,” says an Egyptian official, and Washington has acknowledged “the commitment we have showed to our relations with the US and with the administration of President Trump.”

Yet whatever the official version in Cairo, the US still seems to expect more accommodation from Egypt, and cooperation on this and on other files of interest to the US will be crucial in determining the levels of US aid this year.

The 2018 US budget is still to be approved. Informed sources say many in the administration are arguing for a significant cut in the annual economic and military aid. In Congress, the House is in favour of maintaining aid while the Senate wants to see reductions.

If Washington expects Cairo to push Abbas into showing greater flexibility, Egyptian sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly off the record were unwilling to either confirm the US official narrative that Egypt is “trying to convince Abbas”, nor assert a serious possibility Abbas might change his position.

An informed Arab diplomat said: “It is not just Abbas who is reluctant. King Abdullah is equally hesitant.”

Another issue that will determine the assessment on Egyptian cooperation Pence takes back to Washington is the highly sensitive subject of conditions facing Egypt’s Copts.

A leading Egyptian-American Coptic figure in Washington told the Weekly: “Pence will certainly bring up the issue in his talks with President Al-Sisi.” The US vice president will arrive with “a list of specific problems which he is going to ask” the president to personally consider.

Pence is also likely to bring up the subject of Egypt’s energy and security cooperation with Russia, including arms purchases, the possible signing of an agreement on the mutual use of air bases and the agreement with Moscow to build a nuclear power plant on Egypt’s north coast.

Other issues that will be raised, say the same sources, include the now seven-year long legal case of three Americans convicted of violating Egypt’s national security and, to a lesser extent, concerns over public freedoms in Egypt.

Senior Egyptian officials are keen to avoid further cuts in US aid to Egypt which they say will undermine any strategic alliance between Cairo and Washington. Yet within some quarters in Cairo expectations of cooperation between Egypt and the US under the Trump administration have already been seriously curtailed.

Egypt, argue concerned state officials, had hoped “all the good work” Cairo has been doing in its war against “terrorist groups”, and its “purposeful” cooperation with Israel in “the war on terror” would have met with more appreciation in Washington. Instead, they say, relations with Washington may already have been demoted from a “strategic alliance” to a more “transactional relationship”.

Some Egyptian sources say the shift may not cause as much worry in Cairo as it might as long as Washington shows some appreciation of Egypt’s role in the region. But there are few signs as yet of such appreciation coming from the US given the recent cuts in US aid and the fact Trump neglected to stop in Egypt during his first Middle East visit last summer which took in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Political science professor and expert on Egyptian American relations Mohamed Kamal says it is too early to predict a new phase of tensions between Egypt and the US over the aid issue.

Egypt has been trying to push relations beyond this issue, says Kamal. He argues further cuts in US aid may well be part of the Trump administration’s policy of reducing foreign aid in general rather than signifying disappointment in Washington about Egypt.

Nor, says Kamal, should we “over-estimate the significance of Trump not visiting Egypt when he came to the region last year when it is already clear Trump does not invest much in foreign visits, especially with the kind of domestic matters he has to attend to”.

“We also need to take into consideration the frequency of phone calls between Trump and Al-Sisi since Trump entered the Oval Office.”

While acknowledging it is hard to miss the decline in empathy Trump has displayed towards Egypt since his election, Kamal still insists “Trump is keen on good relations with Egypt.”

“I think what we are seeing today is an acknowledgment form both sides that the basis of their relations as established in the late 1970s needs revision,” he says, which might include a new take on US aid to Egypt but also needs to recognise growing areas of agreements between the two countries.

“What we should be concerned about are not just relations with the Trump administration but Egyptian-American relations in general, now and in the future.”

According to regional diplomatic sources, revising relations with the US might be in order for the entire Middle East — with the exception of Israel — given the declining interest Washington is showing in the region. 

*This story was first published published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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