Official communications between Cairo and Washington returned to the headlines last week after the US State Department approved a $197 million arms deal with Egypt. The US secretary of state also made his country’s first official phone call to his Egyptian counterpart since President Biden took office on 20 January. The two events generated a positive outlook on the tenor of bilateral relations with Washington under a Democratic administration. This is all the more heartening after the gloomy forecasts from some quarters in the US predicting problems arising from American objections to the human rights situation in Egypt.
The conversation between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the strategic nature of a bilateral relation characterised by a large scope of consensus with room for friendly disagreement. The two sides share the view that when they air their differences frankly they will converge on areas of agreement likely to strengthen an alliance built on four decades of optimising mutual interests. Today, there are many such areas of convergence: the security of the Red Sea, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, the fight against terrorism and pressing regional questions such as the conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Indeed, the State Department acknowledged this in a press release following the decision to approve the arms deal: “This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a Major Non-NATO Ally country that continues to be an important strategic partner in the Middle East.”
The White House is under considerable pressure to link military aid to Egypt to issues on which Egypt and the US have differing views, such as human rights and democracy. Yet some circles in the US familiar with political and economic affairs in Egypt have drawn attention to the major strides that Egypt has made in economic development and growth. Lobbies for US businesses underscore the many positive developments that have occurred during the past seven years, as the improved investment climate shows. Their observations contrast starkly with the strident narratives about social instability or government incompetence circulated by some major US outlets or the reports of Washington-based think tanks.
The careful and comprehensive consideration that the Biden administration has given to his country’s bilateral relations with a pivotal country such as Egypt makes it important to appreciate the danger of the camp intent on ruining this relationship. Washington can not afford to lose more friends at this crucial juncture in US foreign relations when the international power struggle has revived a Cold War climate in the Middle East and other areas vital to the interests of major world powers. Many tendentious articles and reports betray the fingerprints of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist organisation in Egypt and in other countries aware of the threat it poses to peace and cohesion. Some in Washington have been gulled into believing that it subscribes to democracy and pluralism, which could not be further from the unpleasant truth or the history of the mother of all Islamist terrorist organisations. In all events, the mouthpieces propagating the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims must be disappointed by the Biden administration’s actions, which reflect a determination to keep things in perspective and to deal with Cairo as a strategic partner that remains crucial to American interests even if the two sides disagree on some issues.
Egypt’s domestic performance indicators (comprehensive development plans, economic growth figures, etc) and its balanced foreign policies supporting development, reconstruction, territorial integrity and the preservation of the state in neighbouring countries combine to belie the image others are trying to disseminate about our government. In fact, Egypt’s foreign policy outlook and convictions as applied in the region are a positive mirror of its domestic behaviour whether in response to real and grave threats to national security or in pursuit of a compressive vision of human rights that includes the rights to health, education, housing and work, alongside civic and political rights.
Close relations between Egypt and the US are beneficial to both, especially given threats of a magnitude it would be foolish to underestimate. Foremost among these is terrorism which jeopardises US interests in the Middle East, the freedom and safety of navigation in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and oil resources in the Gulf. These threats are persistent and the fact that they also jeopardise international peace and security makes it imperative to encourage strategic partnerships and to insulate them from fabricated tensions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly