Egypt-US ties: Mixed messages

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 19 May 2022

Recent visits by US officials to Cairo could signal that American-Egyptian relations are improving.

Egypt-US ties: Mixed messages


On 11 May, US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan paid a surprise visit to Cairo where he met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and senior Egyptian officials. Cairo was the only Arab capital Sullivan visited.

A statement by the US National Security Council’s Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Sullivan’s meeting with Al-Sisi focused on the importance of achieving tangible and lasting human rights progress in Egypt. “He also discussed with President Al-Sisi the global consequences of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, and Washington’s support for Egypt’s security, food, and fuel needs,” said Watson.  

Egypt’s Presidential Spokesperson Bassam Radi, however, said the meeting focused on strategic partnership, fighting terrorism and achieving peace in the Middle East. Radi made no mention of human rights.

According to Radi, Sullivan conveyed to Al-Sisi that Washington hopes to develop its relations with Cairo during the coming period within a framework of close and extended cooperation.  President Al-Sisi expressed Egypt’s keenness to strengthen its extended strategic relationship with the US and intensify cooperation and coordination between the two countries on several levels. He also stressed that solving the Palestinian issue in line with international resolutions would impose a new reality and open horizons for building peace and building bridges of trust, cooperation, construction, and development across the Middle East.

Radi also said Al-Sisi and Sullivan reviewed ways to enhance cooperation over combating terrorism and extremist ideologies, and that Al-Sisi had stressed Egypt’s firm position on the need to reach a binding legal agreement for the process of filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in a manner that preserves Egypt’s water security and achieves the common interests of the three countries party to the agreement.

The visit to Cairo was Sullivan’s second, following a trip in September 2021 when he stopped off in a number of Arab capitals.

Political analysts and press reports noted that on both visits Sullivan issued statements affirming his discussion had focused on “securing tangible and lasting improvements” in human rights.

Sullivan arrived in Cairo two days after another US top official, newly-appointed head of US Central Command General Michael Kurilla, had held talks with President Al-Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials.

About Kurilla’s visit, Sisi had emphasised the importance of Egyptian-American military cooperation in building the strategic partnership between the two countries which represents the cornerstone of peace and security in the Middle East, and that Kurilla had said the American administration fully recognises the effective and pivotal Egypt plays in the Middle East and North Africa, and that this stems from President Al-Sisi’s deep understanding of the challenges in this important part of the world.

On his way back to Washington, Kurilla told reporters travelling with him that “the tone in my engagements in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE was frank and stark,” and “our partners are concerned about our long-term commitment to the region.” He also conceded that currently there are “gaps” in the relationship between the US and all three states.

Kurilla’s visit to Egypt, his first since taking the helm US Central Command in April, came less than four months after Washinton cut $130 million in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns.

Samir Farag, a former general in Egypt’s Armed Forces and prominent military analyst, said it was the US’ ambivalent policies towards Egypt that had led President Al-Sisi to  diversify its sources of arms and “as a result Egypt’s imports from Russia, France, Germany, and Italy have surged in recent years.”

In Saudi Arabia, Washington has provoked anger by criticising the kingdom’s human rights record, particularly over the killing of journalist Gamal Khashoggi in Turkey, while in the UAE it angered Abu Dhabi by refusing to abandon efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, refusing to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group and suspending arms sales to Arab Gulf states.

Kurilla was in Egypt two days after 11 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack in North Sinai for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Kurilla, who oversees US forces in the Middle East, said following his talks in Cairo on 9 May that the attack underscored the persistent threat from extremists and that he had offered “both my condolences and my view of the Islamic State threat”.

He also told reporters travelling with him that the fact his first foreign visit since taking office was to Cairo illustrated that “our strategic relationship is important to me, the US, and to Central Command.”

A report by Reuters said “during his visit to Cairo, Kurilla offered to send US Rear Admiral Mitchel Bradley, who leads US special operations forces in the Middle East, to Egypt to offer “guidance and additional assistance”.

Farag said “the visits of Sullivan and Kurilla showed mixed reactions coming from Washington towards Egypt.”

“It is clear from the statements of both that politicians and military generals differ in their view of the relationship with Egypt. Sullivan is a national security advisor and a major decision-maker inside the White House and his statements probably reflect the views of US President Joe Biden and his administration.”

On the other hand, Farag said “Kurilla’s visit to Cairo and his statements about military cooperation show that the Pentagon is more appreciative than politicians of Egypt’s strategic importance.

“Military officials also have a role in decision-making in the White House, and are keen to stress Egypt’s role as a vital ally and key voice in the Arab world.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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