Egypt-US relations post American elections: Stable prospects

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 5 Nov 2020

Cairo will build good relations with the next US president, whether this week’s elections see a further term for Donald Trump or the start of a Joe Biden presidency

US elections
photo: AFP

Thursday 5 November, is the day when Ahmed, Laila, and Ibtissam, all Cairo residents, have scheduled to meet up in a downtown Cairo café to follow the expected final results of the US presidential elections.

The three hope that Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden will win against incumbent US President Donald Trump in the elections that were starting as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Tuesday evening.

Their wish is inspired by the expectation that with Biden in the Oval Office, the US, and consequently Europe, will be more inclined to take a more balanced position on the Palestinian cause and the promotion of good governance and equal rights, including in the Middle East.

“The past few years have been devastating for the Palestinians. We have seen a lot of bias from the US towards Israel, but there was never anything close to what Trump has done,” said Ibtissam.

An Egyptian with a Palestinian maternal grandmother, Ibtissam said that she could not overcome the fact that when her grandmother passed away in Beirut last year she was in grief over what was becoming an ever-decreasing chance for the Palestinians to return to the land they were ejected from since the Nakba, or Catastrophe, in 1948.

Ahmed and Laila, in their late 20s like Ibtissam, were also worried that another four years of Trump in office would only accentuate “the negative impact” they say the US president has had on the chances of democratisation in the Arab world.

But this has not been the only sentiment among Egyptian young men and women. Ghada, Mamdouh, Marian and Ihab, planning “an elections watching night” on Tuesday evening, were solid in their wish that Trump would have a second term.

As far as they were concerned, there was not much that Trump could have taken from the Palestinians if they had been united in the pursuit of their rights rather than being bogged down in inter-factional squabbles or if they had had the support of the Arab countries behind them.

“The fact of the matter is that for over 50 years the Palestinians have never been able to get the rights they say they have, and to be honest I don’t think that they will get anything now. They did not get anything from [former US president Barack] Obama, and I don’t think they will get anything if Biden is elected,” Mamdouh said.

These two couples, in their late 30s and working for multi-national companies in Cairo, were opposed to the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, and they are opposed to anything that could give any help to political Islam.

“The Republicans are like us — they are opposed to the very presence of political Islam. We are almost done with them, and for Trump to have another four years in office would help finish the job. If this job is interrupted now, we might have trouble again,” Ihab said.

The split on who would be better as US president for Egypt is even more acute in the Egyptian-American community in the US.

On Monday evening, Heba and Mohamed, who live in Florida and Washington DC, both joined the early voting process in the elections like some 100 million other Americans. Heba voted for Trump, and Mohamed voted for Biden.

Heba’s decision was not about what a second term for Trump would mean for Egypt, but was rather about what it would mean for her as an American.

“Of course, as an Egyptian-American I keep an eye on Egypt, but when I vote, I vote as an American. I am voting for Trump because I have always voted Republican, even since I first voted for George W Bush in 2000,” she said.

For Mohamed, this was the first time he had voted as an American citizen. He voted for Biden, who might not be his dream president, but who he said was still “good enough”.

“I cannot vote for a president who chose to deal with Covid-19 as a secondary issue. This is not someone I can trust as an American citizen,” he said.

Mohamed argued that whatever ideas Trump or Biden might have with regards to Egypt or the Middle East was not something that had influenced his decision. However, he added, “what Trump has in mind for Egypt and for the Middle East” is not something he could agree with.

“I cannot agree with his positions on the Palestinians or on issues related to good governance,” Mohamed said.

“I am not suggesting that any US president should be interfering in the internal affairs of Egypt, but I am saying that it is best to have a US president who could work with Egypt in the best interest of Egyptians,” he added.

In official quarters in Cairo, the general attitude is that Trump is perhaps a better partner for Egypt for the next four years, as he has been for the past four years.

“Trump is a very pragmatic president. He does not hold ideas that are too ambitious to be executed with regards to the promotion of democracy, like Obama or George W Bush, for example,” said an Egyptian government official.

“It is not about him being Republican or Democratic, but about how he sees this part of the world and how he sees Egypt in this context,” he added.

According to this and other Egyptian officials, even with the decisions Trump has made that Egypt was not in agreement with, like the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, “we still think that overall he has a good eye on what needs to be done for this region.”

“We don’t think that this region needs preaching. If you want the region to democratise, then you have to help it overcome its political problems so that it can develop. We always say we are not opposed to democracy, but we believe that democracy is part of overall development,” he argued.

“By trying to get the Palestinians and Israelis to get together to negotiate, Trump was opening the door. Even if what he offered was not good enough, it was something that could be a door opener,” he said.

“It is true that Trump was making an offer that was essentially designed to serve Israeli priorities, but then again all American presidents, past and future, will always work to serve this objective,” he added.

The security of Israel, according to Bahgat Korany, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, and the security of the Gulf countries and of oil flows from the Gulf to the US are key priorities for any US president.

“This was the case for Trump, and it would be the case for Biden and for any future US president,” he argued. Moreover, he added, “good relations with Egypt are also essential for US foreign policy on the Middle East.”

According to Korany, “no matter the differences on matters that might relate to controversial issues such as the best way to observe human rights, any US president will always be keen on good relations with Egypt.”

Traditionally, Egypt has been a crucial partner for the US in the promotion of a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli struggle. In the past decade, with so many hiccups in several Arab countries that have been consumed in conflict, Egypt has proved to be the most stable state in the region.

According to Cairo-based Western diplomats, despite the growing role of a country like the UAE in promoting Arab-Israeli normalisation and the decline of US interest in having a direct presence in the Middle East, Washington will still need Cairo as a partner in promoting peace and stability in the region.

“On the surface, some in Egypt might be concerned that Biden might be giving too much attention to issues related to democracy over everything else, but I don’t think this is going to be true at all,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

“Biden will first be very busy with internal affairs, and then he will be trying to get Iran to negotiate another nuclear deal. He will work with the Europeans on this, and then he will want to work with good partners of the US like Egypt and Saudi Arabia on promoting peace and stability in the Middle East,” the diplomat added.

If elected, the European diplomat argued, Biden will realise that his presidency will not be exactly what most regimes in this region are hoping for, so he will work on reassuring everyone on his intention to build bridges.

“It is not just Egypt that might have concerns over what a Biden presidency might mean. I think with the exception of Iran all regimes in this region will be more comfortable with Trump for another four years,” he added.

According to a retired Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington, “when Obama was elected in 2009, there was a great deal of rejoicing in Egypt and most of the Arab world. But a few years down the road there was a lot of dismay over his choices for the Middle East.

“It is better to wait and see. Egypt is not a country that any American president could compromise on, no matter the electoral statements that this or that candidate might be making,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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