When Joe Biden won the US presidential elections in November it was widely supposed that the incoming president would up-end the warm relationship that had existed between Donald Trump and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Biden, said commentators, would continue along the path set by the Barack Obama presidency, supporting political Islam and exerting pressure on Egypt in the area of human rights.
Until recently such predictions appeared to be accurate. Until late last month Biden chose to limit high-level channels of communication with Egypt, restricting them to a phone call in February between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri. The US State Department was keen to stress that Blinken had used the phone call to raise concerns over human rights which he said were central to the US-Egypt bilateral relationship.
All that, however, was before a new round of hostilities erupted last month between the Israelis and Palestinians and Egypt found itself playing a leading role in brokering a ceasefire. In the first days of the conflict Biden seemed stuck in a policy of having zero contact with Egypt’s president.
US media outlets claimed Biden was under pressure from senior aides to distance his administration from Cairo. In the first days of the conflict, the US president limited direct communication to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only. It was only six phone calls with Netanyahu that Biden discovered that in the end all roads lead to Cairo. The shift took place on 20 May when Biden finally decided to place a phone call to President Al-Sisi. In a press conference at the White House Biden expressed his “sincere gratitude” to Al-Sisi for his role in brokering a ceasefire. A White House statement added that Biden and Al-Sisi had agreed to “stay closely in touch”. Tellingly, no mention was made of the two leaders discussing human rights.
President Al-Sisi tweeted that “the (telephone) discussion confirms the depth and strength of the strategic relations between Egypt and US.”
On 24 May, four days later, Al-Sisi received another phone call from Biden. This time it covered a number of issues. The Egyptian presidency said Biden and Al-Sisi discussed not only the ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian factions, brokered by Egypt with US support, but the latest developments concerning the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Libyan crisis.
On 26 May, Blinken arrived in Egypt and met with President Al-Sisi. A US State Department statement said they discussed the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, Libya and GERD developments. The statement added that Blinken had stressed the importance of human rights.
Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Suez Canal University, said “the phone conversations between Biden and Al-Sisi and Blinken’s visit to Cairo represent a milestone in Egypt’s relations with Washington’s Democratic administration following four months of frostiness.”
The absence of any direct contact between Biden and Al-Sisi was portrayed in the US media as a deliberate snub, says Zahran, though in his first four months as President Biden had no contact with any other Arab leader.
The close relationship between Trump and Al-Sisi had irritated many in the Democratic Party who loathed Trump, and opposed his policies in the Arab world and Middle East, says Zahran. Trump had expressed appreciation for Egypt’s 30 June Revolution and the role of President Al-Sisi in ridding Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood which “didn’t go down well with the Democratic Party and the US mainstream media”.
Zahran stresses the fact that Egyptian-US relations have had many ups and downs in the years following the 9/11 attacks. “Under the George W Bush administration and after the September attacks the US exerted pressure on Egypt and other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, believing that the lack of democracy in the Arab world had made it fertile ground for extremism and radical Islamist movements. This pressure meant president Hosni Mubarak did not visit Washington during the last two years of Bush’s second term.”
Tensions between Egypt and the US continued under Barack Obama, says Zahran, clearly supported the anti-Mubarak revolution in 2011 and welcomed the election of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as president in 2012. Obama had exerted pressure on Mubarak to resign. When the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power in a popular uprising on 30 June 2013, Obama continued his policies, suspending military cooperation with Egypt. “When Al-Sisi was elected president in 2014, Obama declined to invite him to the White House and at that time said he considered Egypt neither a friend nor an enemy of the US.”
The downturn in relations between Egypt and the US under Obama was dramatically reversed under Donald Trump. During the American presidential campaign in the summer of 2017, Trump expressed admiration for Al-Sisi. They met in New York in September 2017 and Al-Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Trump, and one of the first Arab leaders Trump phoned when he took office in January 2018.
Unlike Obama, Trump invited President Al-Sisi twice to the White House, to the chagrin of the Democratic party media which used to castigate Al-Sisi as a dictator and the leader of a military regime.
Zahran says Cairo was hoping Donald Trump would win a second term “and, when Biden came to office, many expected that a new downturn in relations would take place”.
“The first four months of Biden’s presidency showed clearly that he had no interest in forging a Trump-style relationship with Al-Sisi. And then the Israeli-Palestinian war broke out.”
Mohamed Kamal, a professor of political science at Cairo University, says “the last two weeks have shown that the US can’t do much in the Middle East without the help of a regional power like Egypt.”
“It became clear to Washington, and to many world capitals, that it was impossible to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel without the help of Egypt,” argues Kamal. “Egypt underscored its relevance to the Middle East peace process, and President Al-Sisi demonstrated to the US that he could be a reliable and effective regional actor.”
Kamal expects “the recent warmth in relations between Egypt and the US to continue given that international relations are ultimately based on mutual interests rather than ideological considerations.”
“The Gaza crisis,” says Kamal, “has also shown that Egypt cannot isolate itself from what is happening on its borders.
“While many in Egypt argued we must first tackle our internal problems before becoming involved in the problems of our neighbours, the Gaza crisis has illustrated how active Egyptian diplomacy in the Middle East can translate into huge material and psychological benefits.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly