This week US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to make his first visit to Cairo as part of a 48-hour tour of the region. Blinken began his visit in Israel before going to Ramallah. Following Cairo he was scheduled to travel to Amman, the last stop of his four-leg tour.
The visit of the US secretary of state, the first to the Middle East since the inauguration of the Biden administration in January, comes less than a week after Egypt managed, with the help of the US and other international players, to bring an end to Israel’s assault on Gaza which over 11 days had devastated the Strip’s already weakened infrastructure, left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
According to a US State Department briefing on the eve of the tour, Blinken’s tour aimed “to rebuild and address the underlying causes that led to this crisis… by advancing equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike in tangible ways”.
In press statements earlier in the week Blinken said the Biden administration is under no illusion that long-stalled peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis can be jumpstarted. Hours before the US secretary of state arrived in the region, however, an informed Egyptian official said that while Cairo is aware that it will not be easy to kick-start talks between Palestinians and Israel, the issue should be high on the agenda of concerned capitals.
“Without a political process, and as long as the underlying issues remain unresolved, we will remain stuck with the possibility of violence erupting. This is the key message we want to convey to Blinken,” he said.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri visited Amman and Ramallah where he held talks with both King Abdullah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The talks, informed sources say, aimed to coordinate an Arab stance on ideas to be put to Blinken. Shoukri was also set to have talks on the same issue in Cairo with his Qatari counterpart Mohamed bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani ahead of the Blinken visit.
The US secretary of state is basically on a reconnaissance tour, say Egyptian officials, and will listen to ideas from all concerned parties on what can be done to achieve a two-step process facilitating stability on the Palestinian-Israeli front. The first step, they add, involves consolidating the fragile ceasefire concluded late last week, while the second includes a slow and controlled reconstruction process in Gaza, as part of the ceasefire consolidation mechanism, leading to a relaunch of peace talks that were suspended over a decade ago.
Both the reconstruction of Gaza and the relaunch of possible peace talks face obstacles. Israel and the US are both demanding guarantees that Hamas does not benefit in any way from the reconstruction. Before the EU commits to a thorough reconstruction, Brussels wants to see a political process in the works so that whatever is rebuilt is not destroyed in yet another round of conflict. Compounding the situation is the ongoing rift between Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2006, and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The relaunch of a political process is not something Israel is willing to entertain now. There is a lack of political will to re-engage as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads towards a new round of legislative elections this autumn, the fifth in less than two years. Nor is PA leader Abbas in a position to engage in any political process with an Israeli government that has just inflicted a massive humanitarian crisis on Gaza and is allowing hostilities against Palestinians in Jerusalem to continue.
Egypt, according to one informed official, has “some ideas on how to navigate through the coming weeks in a way that could allow the start of a reconstruction process that accommodates the political and security priorities of all concerned parties and maybe paves the way forward to the relaunch of a political process even if, at the onset, it is not at the highest level.”
He said Cairo hopes to secure US support for ideas that have already been discussed with other regional and international players.
“We worked with the Biden administration to secure the ceasefire and we are going to work together to consolidate this ceasefire and launch the reconstruction plan and political process,” he said. “We knew the Middle East was not a priority for this administration but the developments of the past few weeks have shown everyone that the situation requires prompt attention.”
The pursuit of a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli struggle has long been central to Egyptian-American relations. During his first phone call with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi late last week Biden praised the role Egypt played in securing a ceasefire, while Al-Sisi commended the intervention of Washington and pledged to work closely with the US to promote peace on the basis of a two-state solution.
This week, in a US State Department briefing, officials said Washington will be working with Egypt and other Middle East partners to open a new chapter in US engagement with the Middle East.
In addition to the highly volatile situation in Gaza, Egypt and the US have been discussing other issues of bilateral interest: the security and political situation in Libya, developments in the Horn of Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute, and bilateral economic and military cooperation.
Egyptian officials say that despite the apprehension that prevailed in Cairo following the defeat of Donald Trump by Biden, Egypt has been getting along pretty well with the new US administration. Military cooperation is going to plan, an arms deal has been approved, and political consultations on regional economic and political issues are being conducted, even if not at the highest level. Nor has the Biden administration been “abrasive” or “confrontational” in discussing differences.
Egyptian officials do not even anticipate friction with Washington over the state of human rights in Egypt. “We know that this administration is a lot more committed than the previous administration to the issue of human rights as part of its overall foreign policy parameters, but we are about to launch our new Human Rights Strategy, possibly before the end of next month, and we are already making progress on socio-economic rights,” said a concerned official.
What Cairo expects, say officials, is a solid, businesslike relationship with Washington in which both parties focus on mutual interests and try to mitigate differences: tellingly, perhaps, following two phone calls with the US president, Al-Sisi posted a statement on his Facebook account praising Biden’s pragmatic and down-to-earth take on regional and bilateral issues.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly