INTERVIEW: US ambassador to Cairo says strategic partnership vital to both nations, spans decades

Hany Assal, Sunday 4 Jul 2021

The points of consensus and mutual interests between the two countries are still the same and outweigh the points of disagreement

Jonathan R. Cohen
U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Jonathan R. Cohen

Perhaps it is exciting that the celebrations of the eighth anniversary of Egypt’s 30 June Revolution coincide with the United States Independence Day on 4 July. This is a special day to Americans, especially this year after the election of a new president.

The following correspondence comes at a time when Egypt-US relations are entering a period of harmony, especially considering the vital role Egypt played in bringing about a ceasefire between Palestinians and Israelis.

Such effort was followed by a high-level communication between the administrations of both countries, including phone calls between Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and US President Joe Biden and visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Cairo.

This paves the way for a new stage in relations between the two countries, which are tied via a strategic partnership that has stood the test of time.

The points of consensus and mutual interests between the two countries are still the same and outweigh the points of disagreement.

Al-Ahram conducted an interview with US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen, where he spoke about the different aspects of the relations between Cairo and Washington.

Appointed in 2019 as the Cairo ambassador, Cohen has served two consecutive administrations, under Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Egypt and the United States are linked by a strategic partnership relationship. Do you think that this relationship has been affected by the change of the American administration, from Donald Trump to Joe Biden?

Thank you for the opportunity to share perspectives with you and your readers.  The U.S.-Egypt strategic partnership is vital to both nations and spans decades.  We have cooperated with one another every day, across the administrations of eight U.S. presidents on a wide agenda which began with Egypt’s pioneering role in promoting Middle East peace.  During my time in Egypt, we have worked closely together on regional issues, maritime security, trade and investment promotion, environmental issues, counterterrorism, education, cultural exchange, and a wide variety of other issues.  This work spans the Trump and Biden administrations.

How do you see the political role that Egypt played in calming the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and is there an agreement between Cairo and Washington to resume peace negotiations soon?

When President Biden and President El Sisi spoke last month, President Biden thanked Egypt for its successful diplomacy and coordination with the United States to end the recent hostilities in Israel and Gaza and ensure violence does not re-occur.  The two leaders consulted on the urgent need to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need in Gaza and to support rebuilding efforts in a manner that benefits the people there and not Hamas. President Biden asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit the region for follow up, and of course Secretary Blinken came to Egypt where he conveyed again President Biden’s appreciation to President El Sisi for Egypt’s critical mediation efforts in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.  They also discussed ways to rebuild Gaza without benefiting those organizations opposed to peace.  We look forward to continued efforts to move forward towards negotiations for a two-state solution. 

Can you tell us about the size of the American participation in major projects such as the Suez Canal axis and the new administrative capital, especially as there is a massive participation of countries such as China, Russia, and South Korea?

The United States applauds the Government of Egypt’s efforts to develop and expand Egypt’s infrastructure to enable sustained economic growth.  Leading American information and communication, energy, and infrastructure companies are executing projects in the Suez Canal Zone and the New Administrative Capital, among many other places in Egypt.  

We have a very active commercial and economic team at the embassy that is supporting American companies to bring their proven technology, expertise, and experience to help Egypt achieve its development goals while benefiting the American and Egyptian peoples.   

The American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt (AmCham) is one of the oldest and most effective business associations in the region and is a crucial partner in fostering business partnerships between our two countries.   

Are you satisfied with the current volume of trade exchange between Egypt and the United States? Don't you see that there are new areas in which to cooperate?

My goal is to continuously grow our trade and investment relationship.  Egypt is our largest export market in Africa, and the fourth largest in the Middle East, while the United States is Egypt’s second-largest trade partner.  U.S.-Egyptian trade grew by nearly 76 percent from 2016 to 2019, from just under $5 billion to almost $8.8 billion in 2019.  U.S. exports to Egypt were $5.5 billion in 2019, up 57 percent since 2016.  Egyptian exports to the U.S. reached $3.3 billion in 2019, more than double their value in 2016.  This growth in our trade relationship reflects our intensive focus on facilitating partnerships between U.S. and Egyptian firms and promoting bilateral trade.

But there is room to expand bilateral trade further. We are engaged with the Government of Egypt to improve the business climate, and we work actively with U.S. companies to identify and capitalize on opportunities to increase trade. I think there’s room for further growth as our two countries emerge from the pandemic.

U.S. firms invested $1.5 billion in Egypt in 2020, making the United States the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Egypt last year.  We were the third-largest source of FDI in 2019.  A lot of our investment is in the oil and gas sector, but U.S. firms are exploring other sectors and are increasing investment in real estate, telecommunications, manufacturing, and financial services.  More than 1,400 Egyptian companies outside the oil and gas sector are backed by U.S. FDI, supporting tens of thousands of Egyptian jobs. 

What about cooperation between the two countries in confronting the Corona pandemic, whether with regard to the “Covax” initiative or the possibility of obtaining “Johnson & Johnson” vaccines in the coming period?

President Biden announced on June 10 that the United States will donate 500 million vaccine doses via COVAX, the largest donation by any country.  The United States has already contributed $2 billion to COVAX and has committed another $2 billion in funding through 2022. 

Meanwhile, the United States has also committed to deliver vaccines directly to partner nations, including Egypt, in the coming months.

What about the US participation it the Mediterranean Gas forum, led by Egypt?

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum has the potential to increase economic integration and facilitate constructive dialogue.  We applaud Egypt for its leadership in convening the EMGF.  The United States is looking forward to participating in the upcoming ministerial meeting as an observer.

On the social level, the embassy is involved in a great effort in supporting many projects related to education, health, and women. Can you tell us about the most prominent results of these efforts?

U.S. assistance has brought improved education, clean water, better health, economic growth, and numerous other benefits to the Egyptian people.  Over $3.5 billion brought clean water and sanitation services to over 25 million Egyptians.  Do you drink water from the tap in central Cairo?  That water is processed by the Rod El-Farag plant the U.S. and Egypt built together years ago. 

I was just in north Sinai visiting a new water plant there, part of $50 million in U.S. support for water infrastructure projects there that provides clean water to 450,000 Egyptians in the Sinai.

In terms of health, the U.S. invested $1 billion to help eliminate polio, educate 14,000 community health workers, and reduce child mortality by 80%.  Most recently, as befits our strategic partnership, Egypt provided us with desperately needed medical supplies when Corona broke out in the U.S., and last summer we returned the favor providing 250 ventilators to Egypt; both efforts saved lives.

To combat violence against women, we helped train 3,000 law enforcement officials, health care providers, and social workers to support women and girls who have experienced violence.

In education, the United States invested $1.7 billion over the past 40 years to build 2,000 schools and train 115,000 primary school teachers, reaching five million children nationwide.  $350 million in scholarships and exchange opportunities provided more than 23,000 students and mid-career professionals unique learning experiences.  We helped establish 19 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) high schools for 5,000 of Egypt’s best students.  Through support to Egypt’s technical secondary schools, we ensured that 22,000 girls have the right skills to succeed in the labor force and connected 10,000 female graduates with jobs.

All told, the U.S. has invested $30 billion in Egypt’s development over the past 40 years.

The US media put great pressure on the American administration to raise issues of democracy and human rights in Egypt from time to time. Could these pressures negatively affect the direction of the American administration towards Egypt?

President Biden has made clear that human rights will be at the center of our foreign policy with all our partners, including with Egypt, and we have serious, high-level discussions on the topic.  Egypt is a long-term strategic partner, with whom we continue to work to advance regional security and stability, and to promote a stable, prosperous Egypt which advances the human rights aspirations of its people.

We appreciate the recent steps Egypt has taken to improve religious freedom, including approving applications to license unregistered churches and constructing new churches, and improve respect for women’s rights, and combatting of female genital mutilation.

Freedom of the press is certain, but do you play a specific role in clarifying some matters to the American media, especially since a large part of what it publishes about the situation in Egypt is based on inaccurate information, or from one side?

My role as Ambassador is to connect Americans and Egyptians, and to help us understand each other better.  I do that by meeting and learning from many of my Egyptian contacts, friends, and colleagues about everything that is going on in Egypt.  Part of my role, and the duty of the Embassy, is also to inform colleagues back in Washington about the situation here in Egypt.  I believe we continue to have a productive dialogue on a range of strategic issues, an example of which is the complementary roles Egypt and the United States played in promoting a ceasefire in Gaza. 

Tell us about your stay in Egypt? What are the most prominent places you visited? Your best Egyptian friend here? What do you like on a personal level? What is bothering you?!

I greatly enjoy my time in Egypt.  I look forward to a time after Corona when I can see more of this great country. I have enjoyed visits to Luxor, Aswan, Minya, Alexandria, Damietta, Ismailiya, Siwa, north Sinai, Gouna, Sokhna, Marsa Matrouh, and Alamein to list a few of the amazing places here in Egypt.  I fully intend to make the most of my limited time as Ambassador here to explore as much as possible of Egypt!

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