With the US being a key superpower and Egypt an influential regional nation with a long history, this relationship is wide-ranging and diverse, covering bilateral, regional and international issues. Differences do come up, but through dialogue and recognition of the importance of maintaining close cooperation, Egypt and the US have preserved their strategic partnership.
The US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue was launched in the mid-1990s under former US president Bill Clinton. Top level officials from the two sides, coming from a variety of sectors involved in cooperation programmes, from military to education, were to meet on a regular basis to review what was achieved, and plans for the future. Such rounds of discussions continued to be held until 2009 when they were halted, before resuming in 2015. When former Republican US president Donald Trump took office in 2017, he met regularly with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and handled the relationship on that level.
After Democratic US President Joe Biden won the election in November, 2020, many observers expected that the relationship with Egypt would be negatively influenced. Before this latest round of strategic dialogue, which concluded on Tuesday, the US State Department announced it was withholding $130 million out of the $1.3 billion annual military aid until improvements took place in Egypt’s human rights profile. This was certainly not a welcome step for Egyptian officials, but going ahead with convening the strategic dialogue in Washington was a good opportunity to clarify Egypt’s view in meetings with their US counterparts, and to confirm that disagreeing on one issue should not influence the overall strategic relationship between the two countries.
For many reasons, and particularly following the widespread instability in the region over the past 10 years, breaking up key countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, US-Egypt close cooperation and coordination is indispensable on many fronts. Since Egypt signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1979, it has played a key role in stabilising the region and convincing other regional players to work on reaching a negotiated, peaceful settlement. When the latest war broke out in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, it was Egypt’s intervention that led to a relatively quick pause. This role was recognised by President Biden, who telephoned President Al-Sisi in May to confirm the need for continued coordination between the two countries, not just to maintain the fragile peace in Gaza, but also to kickstart talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s new government, which were on hold. For the first time in many years, President Al-Sisi hosted Israel’s prime minister in Sharm El-Sheikh in September, raising the hope that peace negotiations could resume with the Palestinian Authority.
Sudan, together with Libya, are Egypt’s two closest neighbours. Unfortunately, both countries are in turmoil. While the United States certainly has its own interests in both countries from an international perspective, it is Egypt that will be directly influenced by continuing instability there. Through close coordination with the US, Egypt has confirmed its commitment to exert all possible efforts to restore stability in Sudan by convincing all parties concerned of the need to reach an agreement that would help to restore trust between the military and civilian components of the government that took over following the ouster of former president Omar Al-Bashir in early 2019.
In Libya, the two countries agreed on the importance of holding presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 December in the hope of restoring Libya’s geographic and governmental unity. This will not be achieved, however, if foreign troops and mercenaries maintain their illegal presence in Libya. Close coordination between Egypt and the United States is also needed in Syria and Iraq.
The previous decade was a period of trials and tribulations in the Middle East. Thankfully, Egypt has weathered the storm and successfully overcame the subsequent security and economic turbulence that bedeviled the region, and is now standing on solid ground and fulfilling its traditional role as a stabilising force in the region. While confronting serious challenges to Egypt’s security, including the fight against terrorism and extremism, President Al-Sisi spared no effort to achieve greater and more inclusive growth and economic development for the Egyptian people.
Facing demands by the new Biden administration to improve Egypt’s human rights record, Cairo repeatedly expressed its conviction that orderly change was the best chance for success. Moreover, Egypt’s government strongly believes that human rights are an interdependent whole, which necessitates that we dedicate as much attention to political rights and civil liberties as we do to economic and social rights. This is an evolutionary process unique to each country, one that reflects and takes into consideration its social specificities, developmental realities, religious background and cultural characteristics. It should be acknowledged that ultimately it will be up to the people of Egypt to decide for themselves what they want with respect to a political, social and economic system that would ensure and promote the welfare of Egypt’s citizens.
The national human rights strategy that was developed through a wide-ranging consultative process with the active engagement of societal stakeholders and which was recently launched with presidential endorsement, in addition to the president’s decision last month to end the state of emergency across Egypt, are irrefutable evidence of Egypt’s determination to build a modern democratic state for the benefit of its citizens first and foremost.
Finally, Egyptian-American relations are not limited to the areas of political and security cooperation. There are also the economic, scientific, educational and cultural areas, which provide potentially endless opportunities to further deepen and broaden ties between the two countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly