Talking it through

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 19 Nov 2021

Abdel-Moneim Said sums up last week’s Egyptian-US Strategic Dialogue

Last week in Washington US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukri presided over the Egyptian-US Strategic Dialogue. It has been a little over nine months since President Joe Biden took office. From what Cairo knew of that administration, Egypt was not thrilled at the time. During his campaign, Biden’s remarks concerning Egypt were littered with expressions of reproach and vows that there would be no return to the situation as it stood under Trump. From the Egyptian standpoint, the situation as it stood before that, under president Obama, had been difficult. Biden, as we know, served as vice president under Obama and he brought some key figures with him into his administration. It was clear that the Democratic president had relied considerably on the “progressives” on his way to the White House and that the “liberals” in the party had lumped Egypt together with other countries they viewed as politically not up to par in terms of US democratic standards. In addition, African- American political groups tended to sympathise with Ethiopia. Above all, there was a strong aversion to Trump’s approaches to states and leaders. 

Washington’s climate in general was not healthy, not just for Egypt but for other Arab countries that fall in the moderate camp promoting development and reform. US think tanks and various media were propagating Muslim Brotherhood narratives about what happened on 30 June 2013 and afterwards. The true and authentically Egyptian story was unavailable there and the version that supplanted it was not open to Egyptian reform and progress since that day, to which testify the reports of the IMF and World Bank. So when Biden came to power, Egyptian-US relations were not at their best; the road ahead was hardly inspiring. 

However, since Biden took office, relations have begun to thaw. This is not because the campaigns against previously warm relations under Biden’s predecessor slacked off or because of a sudden weakness in the “progressive” and “liberal” wings of the Democratic Party. Rather, it is due to shared experience being given the chance to get off to a fresh start. 

In large measure this is due to the fact that Cairo has come a long way in six years thanks to the cumulative results of the ongoing reform process. Biden and his team now had to deal with an Egypt unlike the one they knew under Obama. The US had changed a lot too. Although it had not lost its superpower status, for one thing, it had lost its title as “sole superpower.” Secondly, it had decided to withdraw from the Middle East, militarily at least, which signalled to the countries of the region that they had to rely on themselves. So they set about doing just that. Egypt began to build a new region in the Eastern Mediterranean centred around gas and oil as it continued to build its own soft power. Saudi Arabia began to build another region in the Red Sea while energetically striving to diversify its sources of wealth, income and economic development. Amazingly, these changes occurred against the backdrop of other developments such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war against terrorism and the interventions of non-Arab regional powers, all of which brought Egypt and Saudi Arabia closer together than either might have at first imagined. 

The Biden administration’s “strategic latency” towards the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular lasted until around May. Both sides were preoccupied by domestic concerns. If for Egypt this was largely developmental needs, for the US it was post-Trump matters such as reviving the US’ traditional alliances and former ways of working with allies. The fourth Gaza War brought about a turning point because it forced Biden to face the test that most US administrations have had to face. As much as they might want to withdraw from this region, if they do, it will haunt them day and night. That war showed not only how the Palestinian cause was in danger but also how ignoring it paves the way to trouble and instability in one of the most religiously sensitive spots in the world. Suddenly, the languid contacts between Washington and Cairo sprang to life and regained efficacy as Egypt demonstrated how, with Arab support, it could wield its strategic influence to produce and then secure a ceasefire, creating opportunities to deal with complex issues.

  The next stage was in September, at the time of the Bright Star military manoeuvres that brought the forces of 21 nations together with those of the US. It is no secret that the long military relations between the US and Egypt, as well as a number of other Arab countries, have a special character that sprang from the war to liberate Kuwait. Since that time administrations have come and gone in Washington, but those military relations have remained a constant. The resumption of the Bright Star manoeuvres reflected this dynamic. But equally and perhaps more importantly, the exchange of views and political interactions surrounding developments in Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia and, of course, Gaza opened the doors to the strategic dialogue, not to turn the clock back to the good old days but to allow a large realm of pragmatism and mutual interests to prevail over other doctrinal approaches to this relationship. 

In Cairo one sometimes encountered exaggerated, idealistic notions that pictured the dialogue as an expression of a bond propelling two friends back into each other’s embrace after a period of separation. In fact, the dialogue was commensurate to the stature of its parties, one a superpower and the other a regional power, who met to deliberate on the major issues that states talk about with each other: security, bilateral relations, trade, the main problems in the Middle East and, lastly (and indeed that came last) human rights. Cairo had anticipated this order from reports of previous delegations that had gone to Washington to test which way the winds were blowing and found that, indeed, the climate there was more pragmatic than it had been before. The results spoke for themselves, in Blinken and Shoukri’s joint press conference and in the consensus the two sides reached on many matters. This even applies to that matter that had been especially sensitive in the past, which Egypt addressed according to its own schedule. It released certain detainees, developed a human rights strategy along the lines the UN had advocated since 2018 and, lastly, stopped renewing the emergency law because terrorism no longer exceeded the bounds of organised crime which can be dealt with by ordinary law. 

Certainly, the dialogue was useful for both sides. Perhaps the experience should inspire us to try it between Arab states.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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