The Egyptian-US strategic dialogue provides an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest as well as regional crises, providing a foundation from which to strengthen and broaden vital ties, said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri at the outset of the dialogue on Monday.
The tensions that characterised Egyptian-US relations when Joe Biden entered the White House may have lessened in the wake of Egypt’s role in negotiating the Gaza ceasefire in May, but there is still work to be done. And even though the US is recalibrating its role in the Middle East, shifting its international focus to other areas, Washington remains an important capital for Cairo, says Cairo University professor of political science Mohamed Kamal.
The obverse, too, is true. Egypt is still viewed as an important partner in Washington, a fact the most recent conflict in Gaza, and the disruption caused when the Suez Canal was temporarily blocked earlier this year, served to underline.
Growing US interest in the Indian and Pacific oceans will increase the importance of the Suez Canal and enhance Egypt’s role in future arrangements regarding world trade and maritime security in the region,” Kamal told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The timing of the dialogue is significant, says Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. It comes not only as elections approach in Libya, a poll that some groups support and others are attempting to derail, but when the conflict between civilian politicians and the military in Sudan is entering a crucial phase.
On the Palestinian front, says Hassan, the Biden administration has said it supports a two-state solution but has done nothing to translate that support into action, and the crises in Syria and Yemen appear as intractable as ever.
US aid to Egypt was naturally discussed during the course of the two-day dialogue. Washington provides $1.3 billion in annual Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Egypt, $300 million of which is conditional. In September, the Biden administration said it would withhold $130 million owing to concerns over human rights. Since that decision was made, Cairo has issued a National Strategy for Human Rights and last month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi lifted the state of emergency that has been in place since 2017.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out during his dialogue opening speech that “making tangible and lasting improvements on human rights is essential to strengthening our bilateral relationship, and the United States will continue to support those efforts however we can.”
The ongoing dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was also discussed. “The United States continues to support a negotiated agreement that will address the interests of all parties, including Egypt’s water needs, something that President Biden and President Al-Sisi have discussed directly,” said Blinken.
The US hosted tripartite talks in November 2019 and an agreement was reached in February the following year only for the Ethiopian delegation to miss the final meeting when the agreement was due to be signed.
On the regional level, the political turmoil in Sudan is likely to have topped the agenda. While the US believes restoring a civilian-led transitional government is the best way to meet the aspirations of the Sudanese people, Washington feels Egypt has been giving mixed signals on the matter. That Sudanese General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan visited Cairo before the military acted to remove Sudan’s prime minister will certainly have raised suspicions in Washington that the army’s move was first discussed with Egypt.
On Libya, Washington and Cairo agree that foreign forces and mercenaries must leave the country, and that measures capable of guaranteeing the elections scheduled for 24 December run smoothly are needed.
“While Egypt has moved away from its support of General Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), the question remains whether other parties will be willing to give up their preferences and pursuit of short-term interests and work for the security and stability of Libya,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
While Egypt and the US also agree that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians should be pursued, Blinken’s speech appeared to give priority to Israel’s relations with Arab states, while Cairo wants to prioritise negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
“In the more than four decades since it was signed, the Camp David Accord has been the bedrock for peace in the region. It’s helped pave the way for other Arab nations to make peace with Israel. The Egypt-Israel relationship has never been stronger,” said Blinken.
The two diplomats also discussed instability in the Horn of Africa, ways to contain Iranian influence, and bilateral cooperation in the economic, judicial, security, education, and cultural fields
During the two-day strategic dialogue Blinken was joined by senior officials from USAID and the Department of Defense. As well as US administration officials, Shoukri met with members of the House of Representatives and Senate, and held meetings with leading think tanks.
Shoukri and Blinken’s last meeting was on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) 76th session.
The Egypt-US Strategic Dialogue was launched in the mid-1990s, continuing until 2009 when it was halted, before resuming in 2015. This week’s session was the first since 2015.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly