US-Egypt relations: Breaking with the recent past

Ezzat Ibrahim
Wednesday 18 Nov 2020

The new Biden administration in the US needs to pursue positive relations with Egypt and to engage in constructive dialogue to reach joint understandings on common interests

In an article last week, I dealt with the need for the new Democratic Party administration in Washington to undertake a serious review of US policy towards Political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and to formulate a vision with its Arab allies to stop the Iranian expansion in various countries in the region before concluding a new nuclear agreement with Tehran, on the other. 

However, there are widespread fears in many of the Arab societies that have survived the disasters of civil wars and sectarian and ethnic fragmentation after the wave of Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011 that the new US administration may instead slip back onto a path that recalls what happened under the administration of former US president Barack Obama, and the trend that uses religion in the service of politics will try to gather its supporters once more around the exclusion of others in the name of religious belief. The Egyptian nation experienced this trend in power for a year and then rose up against those who sought to manipulate religion.

Some liberals in Washington are still not convinced of the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood in a country like Egypt, not seeing that what it wished for in its period of rule was to confiscate power from the people in a similar way to what happened in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which started as a civil-society protest movement against the rule of the former shah. A religious movement then took over the country after a few months, turning it into an unbearable hell and becoming a regime that the Iranian people have not been able to get rid of for 40 years.

A handful of experts on Egypt and the Middle East in Washington, some of whom may join the new Democratic administration in January, consider that the exclusion of the Brotherhood from power represented a contradiction of democratic practice and of the ideas for which the Egyptian people came out in force during the 25 January Revolution in 2011. However, these experts have not examined carefully enough the causes of the 30 June Revolution in 2013, which put an end to Brotherhood rule.

It is rare to find a fair opinion among Washington commentators on the popular revolution on 30 June 2013 that came in protest against a president from a rogue religious group that was seeking to radically change the country’s identity. Washington think tanks also lack the kind of detailed understanding of the reasons for the escalation of the anger against Brotherhood rule that led to the revolution, in some cases even adopting the views of the very people that the Egyptian people rejected just a few months after they had come to power. 

The initial reception of Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections, at least in circles close to the Democrats in the Washington think tank community, has been that this victory is a kind of promise to Egypt that difficult days are coming under the new administration. It is difficult to understand the view that replacing the rule of a religious group wedded to an authoritarian ideology with properly civic rule comfortably accepted by the vast majority of the people is a crime for which a nation deserves punishment. This hypocritical view on the situation in Egypt will harm the strong bilateral relations and the strategic partnership between Egypt and the US and over the longer term will hurt their common interests.

The presence of hostile elements in the management of bilateral relations in the new US administration will also seriously harm communication between Cairo and Washington, even as such language has no place in bilateral contacts.

The contract Egypt signed last week with a US consulting firm to provide advice over the coming period, whether at the level of the US administration or in Congress, has triggered much gossip in Washington. While what Egypt did is completely consistent with what other countries have done and are doing, critics say that Cairo is terrified of the prospect of the Democrats coming to power. I wonder whether the reason the Gulf states are spending large amounts on contracts with think tanks in Washington or are being assigned by them to consulting firms – and some critics of Egypt work for these think tanks – is also because they feel in danger? Or is it merely because they wish to develop their relationship with an indispensable strategic partner?

Egypt may not have needed such advice from consulting firms during the Trump administration owing to the nature of the rapprochement between the Egyptian and American administrations. But on 20 January next year, there will be a new administration in Washington whose decisions will be largely influenced by Congress – the possibility of a Democratic Party majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives cannot yet be excluded – and this may spark tensions in bilateral relations. There is a need to be prepared for this in order to ensure that the Egyptian government’s views are well represented.

There have been points of contention between successive US administrations and the Egyptian government, especially on issues of human rights and democracy. Egypt has already responded to many criticisms in the US media and from representatives in the US Congress, especially since the threats facing the Egyptian state are still great, and countries that support the Brotherhood do not deny their hostility towards the Egyptian government. This is a matter on which Cairo is committed to a policy of patience, and it does not want to increase verbal exchanges with capitals that will try to take advantage of the existence of a new Democratic administration in Washington to create problems for the Egyptian government within American institutions.

Investing in a new climate and opening up new possibilities for dialogue between Cairo and Washington are important goals and priorities in bilateral relations, especially as in recent years there have been many US economic investments in Egypt. US and other business lobbies can play an important role in fostering the kind of partnerships that are compatible with the economic-reform programme that the Egyptian government has been pursuing since 2014.

Whether the Biden administration turns out to be a break from the recent past or from the policies of the former Obama administration, there is a need for positive relations to be pursued between Cairo and Washington and for a dialogue to be pursued that will aim to reach joint understandings on bilateral interests. This is despite the existence of the no doubt crowded agenda of the new US administration, which will inherit unstable international relations and unmistakable tensions from the Far East to Latin America and from northern Europe to southern Africa. There is also the US preoccupation with the future of American power, whose fate will be determined by the policies of the new US administration over the next few years.

The proper management of US relationships with pivotal countries in various regions, including Egypt in the Middle East, will have a major impact on whether the US is to remain the major superpower over the coming decades. Perhaps Biden’s strategy to rebuild alliances will be directed towards opening a positive dialogue with America’s allies and friends and not increasing the gaps between them through Washington’s desire to exert its strength on the international scene.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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