On Sunday, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns visited Egypt and met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. It was Burns’ first working visit since taking office last March. His trip also included Israel and the Occupied Territories, where he met with senior Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials.
During his meeting with the US official, President Al-Sisi stressed Cairo’s interest in reinforcing cooperation with Washington, particularly over security, said Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi.
Al-Sisi and Burns exchanged views on tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, developments in Afghanistan and Palestine, over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and Libya.
“The US has always been keen to continue coordination with Egypt, especially in light of developments in the Middle East, the East Mediterranean, and Africa,” Burns was quoted as saying.
Radi said Burns appreciated President Al-Sisi’s efforts to strengthen regional security and stability, and Egypt’s role as a balancing axis for regional security.
Burns is the second senior US official to visit Egypt since Joe Biden became US president in January. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Egypt in May to discuss relations between Cairo and Washington and consolidate the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in Gaza which ended 11 days of Israeli hostilities against the Strip. Blinken’s visit followed two phone calls from Biden to Egypt’s president, raising hopes of a thaw in relations between Cairo and Washington.
Burns’ visit came days after USS Monterey, an American guided-missile cruiser warship, stopped at Egypt’s Bernice Naval Base.
Jonathan Cohen, the US ambassador to Egypt, said the Monterey’s visit to Egypt’s largest military base in the Red Sea was the first for a US warship. “The visit reflects the strong maritime cooperation between Egypt and the US,” said Cohen. “Together we are combating smuggling, trafficking, and piracy, and ensuring safety at sea.”
Egyptian commentators view the visits of senior US officials to Cairo as evidence that Egyptian-US relations now stand on solid ground.
“When Biden took office, many expected relations to turn frosty given the negative views towards political developments in Egypt since 2013 attributed to the incoming president,” says former Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Al-Orabi. “Things began to change following the war in Gaza and the important role Egypt played in brokering a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians, and with the recognition of Egyptian efforts to help Libyan factions reach a political solution.”
US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland visited Cairo on 10-11 August. He met with Egyptian officials and the Commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar to discuss the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled in Libya in December.
Hazem Al-Guindi, a member of the Egyptian Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said despite the Biden administration’s frosty attitude towards Egypt during its first months in office, it now recognises the strategic importance of relations with Cairo. “I think the recent visit of the CIA chief has highlighted how Cairo and Washington share mutual interests, not least on vital issues such as terrorism and the situation in Gaza,” said Al-Guindi.
Al-Guindi concedes, however, that many in the US administration, Congress and media, continue to view Egypt’s political leadership in a negative light. “They continually raise human rights issues and urge Biden to exert pressure on Egypt by cutting military assistance,” said Al-Guindi.
In American political circles US-Egyptian relations have been subject to intensive debate in recent weeks as the US Senate prepares to discuss foreign policy spending, including the $1.3 billion in military aid that Washington provides to Egypt. The Biden administration must soon decide whether or not it will cut $300 million — the amount linked by Congress to Egypt’s human rights record — from the $1.3 billion in annual military aid designated for Egypt.
While federal law requires that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken certify the Egyptian government is taking “sustained and effective steps” to strengthen the rule of law, democratic institutions and respect for human rights, before releasing the military aid, Blinken can bypass the certification by issuing a waiver on the grounds that it is in the national security interests of the US to fully fund military assistance. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo issued such a waiver in July 2020,
The US House of Representatives last month passed the annual foreign policy appropriations package, fully funding the $1.3 billion in military and security assistance to Egypt until 2023 despite calls from House members Tom Malinowski and Adam Schiff to withhold $300 million due to Egypt’s “poor human rights record”.
Senator Chris Murphy, chairman of the US Senate panel on the Middle East and a member of the Senate Appropriations sub-Committee on State and Foreign Operations, also called on the Biden administration to withhold the $300 million over concerns about human rights.
According to US press reports, Biden administration officials remain opposed to any cuts in aid to Egypt. A report in The Hill newspaper, published on 10 August, cited senior officials from the US Department of Defense and the State Department arguing that continued US security assistance to Egypt should remain unchanged “even as the Biden administration raises concerns over Cairo’s record on human rights.”
In a Senate Foreign Relations sub-Committee meeting on the Middle East on 10 August, Dana Stroul, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said “the bottom line for President Biden is that he values the relationship with Egypt, and that he believes the Egyptians are an important security partner.
“We also believe and support that Egypt has legitimate security concerns and believe that security assistance to Egypt is a critical tool in supporting those needs.
“The current view of the administration is that Egypt is playing a constructive role when it comes to border security, Libya, GERD, obviously the conflict in Gaza, et cetera,” said Stroul. She went on to praise Cairo for agreeing to use its own funds, rather than annual US security aid, to upgrade its Apache helicopters.
Mira Resnick, US deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told US senators that while US officials have raised concerns over human rights in Egypt at the “highest level” of government, Egypt remained a “critical security partner”.
“The president himself has underscored the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights with the government of Egypt and we will continue to pursue this, even as we pursue shared security goals on maritime security, on border security, and on counter-terrorism,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly