Predicting Egyptian-US relations and their future course could be a risky business in a fast-changing regional landscape and a changing world scene, at least in the foreseeable future. However, trying to discuss how to maintain and manage these relations, important for both Egypt and the US, is an intellectual exercise worth trying.
On 29 September, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan paid a one-day visit to Cairo, his first since taking the job in January, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and then held a separate meeting with Sameh Shoukri, Egypt’s foreign minister. Sullivan was joined on his trip by White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk.
According to a statement by Spokesperson of the US National Security Council Emily Horne, the discussions in Cairo with senior Egyptian officials related to how to support the Libyan elections and regional security, including in the Horn of Africa. The statement added that Sullivan would reaffirm the importance of human rights in the context of the overall strategic relationship between the two countries.
The US delegation would also discuss Egypt’s role in promoting security and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians following the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Sharm El-Sheikh and his meeting with the Egyptian president, the statement said.
Sullivan’s visit to Cairo came in the context of a regional tour that took him to the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt. The Egyptian side reaffirmed its intention to strengthen the “strategic partnership” with the US, which Egypt considers to be one of the pillars of security and stability in the Middle East.
The scope of the visit from the US point of view was realistic as well as limited in scope, in the sense that the discussions centred around some of the most pressing challenges in the region, among them the situation in Libya, Egyptian mediation between the Israelis and the Palestinians as far as security matters are concerned and security in the Horn of Africa.
Judging by the statement referred to above, human rights was an issue that the US administration considers to be important in the context of its overall strategic relations with Egypt, a position reiterated by Sullivan.
It has been nine months since US President Joe Biden was sworn into office, and still the two countries have not had a major review of the nature and future of their strategic relations in a new regional context. These relations have stood the test of time over the last four decades, with various ups and downs, and they have proved their resilience in the face of very serious challenges in the Middle East and within Egypt, in particular during the second Bush administration (a Republican president) and the two terms of the Obama White House (a Democrat).
The stumbling blocks, like with the Biden administration, have been over democracy, human rights, the freedom of expression and the leeway that Egyptian NGOs have or have not enjoyed.
The Biden administration has made it clear that democracy and human rights will be guiding principles in how US foreign policy will be conducted worldwide. The question from an Egyptian point of view has been how to reconcile this position with the goals and principles that have guided relations with the US over the past 40 years.
Another fundamental issue in the relations between Cairo and Washington is that the latter looks at its strategic relations with Egypt through the lens of Israeli interests and policies, whether with regards to the Palestinians or Israeli conduct in the region, and this does not always align with the Egyptian interest or point of view.
From an Egyptian point of view, Egyptian-US relations should be seen and managed in a larger context than being Israel-centric or dependent on the way Washington sees the record of Egypt in terms of its respect for human rights, democracy and civil society. That does not mean that the two sides should refrain from bringing up these questions in their bilateral meetings, but it does mean that they should not be a way of exercising pressure on Cairo when political circumstances, from the standpoint of US interests, so demand.
In this respect, Cairo understands that the US Congress has played a significant role in US policy towards Egypt when it comes to the question of human rights. But it also believes at the same time that the White House, be it under a Republican or a Democratic administration, wields an important influence in the field of formulating and carrying out US foreign policy.
Last May, at the height of the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip, Biden called President Al-Sisi twice. In the first call, he thanked the Egyptian president for the role Egypt had played in negotiating a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government. In the second call, the two presidents agreed on a set of priorities among which was to keep the lines of communication open between the two sides as far as the question of human rights was concerned. That positive attitude on the part of the US president was widely welcomed in Cairo.
In other words, what is needed is that neither that the US administration overplays its hand in dealing with the issue of human rights in Egypt, nor that Cairo and the Egyptian media overreact to US criticism of the Egyptian record in respect of human rights. The two sides should be more realistic in dealing with their differences, with a marked willingness to work them out politically and diplomatically. In this respect, the media in both countries could play a more constructive role in covering these differences.
Egyptian-US relations have played a significant role in preserving security and stability in the Middle East from the day Egypt signed its Peace Treaty with Israel in March 1979 at the White House. These relations have been the guarantor of peace and security in the region and are destined to play the same role across the Middle East. Over the last four decades, cooperation between the two strategic partners has not been limited to the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, but has also taken place beyond the region.
It was interesting to compare the remarks of President Al-Sisi and President Biden before the General Debate of the 76th Session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York last month. The two men spoke of the two-state solution as being the only viable road to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. They outlined the same challenges facing the world, more or less, including dealing effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.
Looking at the future of bilateral relations between Egypt and the US, I guess there are more opportunities for cooperation on a wide-range of questions that go beyond security considerations in the Middle East. Moreover, there are challenges that come from within. The window of cooperation will ultimately prove to be enduring for the mutual interests of Egypt and the US. The last four decades have proven that their bilateral relations have been more resilient than many had predicted and that they have successfully weathered strong storms in the Middle East that could have impacted them negatively.
It is to be hoped that Sullivan’s visit to Egypt on 29 September will also contribute to the deepening of strategic relations between Washington and Cairo.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.