Egyptian Ambassador to the US Sameh Shukri told Ahram Online from Washington that the current turbulence plaguing the Egypt-US relationship would not derail the "clearly strategic relationship between the two countries."
Shukri spoke as several US citizens in Egypt expect to be summoned to a criminal court for alleged violations of laws regulating the operation of foreign NGOs in Egypt and foreign funding of Egyptian civil society. The moves come amidst threats by the US Congress to cut the US economic and military assistance package to Egypt that has been in place since the signing of the Egypt-Israel Camp David peace treaty over 30 years ago.
"Egypt-US relations have seen more serious challenges than the current problem," Shoukri said. "Both sides are currently attending to the problem at hand, and communications are being conducted at the highest levels to prevent any negative consequences of the administration of this file on the wider scope of Egypt-US relations, which remain strategic for both sides."
Shukri said that the issue had come up during a recent visit by the US chief-of-staff to Cairo, during which he conferred with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
"The visit by the US chief-of-staff had been scheduled in advance and covered the wider issue of military cooperation between Egypt and the US," Shukri said in a telephone interview with Ahram Online. "But their discussions also certainly addressed the matter [of foreign NGOs and foreign funding]."
"Egyptian-American talks are addressing this matter with a view to the interests of both sides," he added. "We can certainly appreciate the concern of the American side with regard to its citizens who stand accused of violating Egyptian law, but we also know the US must be appreciative of Egypt's desire for its own laws to be fully respected."
The Egyptian ambassador declined to reveal the content of the senior US military official's talks in Cairo on the NGO issue, but said that "what was made clear to him by the Egyptian side is that nobody with executive authority [namely, the SCAF] was willing to bend the law or violate judicial decisions."
Only the Egyptian judiciary, Shukri insisted, would decide the fate of the American citizens who stand accused – along with Egyptian and European citizens – of violating the rules governing the operation of foreign NGOs in Egypt.
The US has traditionally supported the separation of the three branches of government and could not therefore ask Egypt to bend the rules to serve US interests in this regard, Shukri explained. "Both Cairo and Washington admit that they have strategic interests and they both need to act accordingly – both sides, not just one side," the diplomat said.
He went on to say that recent statements by US President Barack Obama, in which the latter called on US Congress to maintain the US aid package to Egypt untouched, was a clear sign of Washington's awareness of the need to support Egypt during its current democratic transition.
According to Shukri, statements made by spokesmen for the US State Department and White House suggesting a possible negative impact on US aid to Egypt as a result of the prosecution of certain US citizens – including the son of a US transport secretary – had been trumped by Obama's stated position.
"Despite the views voiced in Congress and in the US media, the US administration remains fully aware of the value of the US aid programme – not just to Egypt, but also to the US," Shukri stated.
Shukri went on to reject suggestions that US demonstrations of anger towards Egypt went beyond the NGO issue to the much deeper and problematic matter of Egypt-Israel relations following the overwhelming success of Islamist parties in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections. The US is not taking sides against Egypt's Islamist parties, nor were there any serious hiccups in Egypt's current relations with Israel, the diplomat said.
What was currently happening, Shukri said, was nothing more than the expected reformulation of the dynamics of Egypt-US relations in light of last year's revolution, which saw the end of the pro-US Hosni Mubarak regime. "Egypt is going through a transitional phase, in which there are several reformulations – from the constitution to the way foreign policy is managed – but the strategic interests [of both sides] remain the same for the most part," he concluded.