Senior officials from Egypt and the US are scheduled to meet in Cairo before the end of the month as part of the US-Egyptian strategic dialogue to discuss economic, political and strategic relations. However, the changes in bilateral relations between the two countries over the past two years raises question about the importance of that dialogue.
In fact, dialogue may further deepen disputes between the administration of President Obama and the regime of President El-Sissi, instead of bridging the gap.
The traditional view that governed bilateral relations for decades – and still seems to dominate the outlooks of many officials in both countries – points to two models that events over the past four years have shown are no longer valid. The first perspective views the relationship between Cairo and Washington as one between a world power with substantial influence in the Middle East that is the key to the global political and financial community on the one hand, and a pioneer regional heavyweight that has influence on many regional issues, whether in North Africa, the Arabian Gulf and the Fertile Crescent on the other hand.
The second view reduces the relationship to US aid in return for Egyptian cooperation, whereby Egypt played a specific role in the region to serve US interests in return for more than $75 billion in military and economic aid so far. This formula also gives Washington important logistical benefits, including using Egyptian airspace and facilitation in crossing the Suez Canal.
These two traditional perspectives are no longer valid to build special relations between the two countries. What we see clearly today amid Middle East crises, confirms that Washington no longer has the same influence and power that Arabs and Egypt thought it possessed. A quick look at key regional crises highlights the limitations of US power and influence whether in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli conflict is at a complete standstill although Washington focused on it in recent years.
It is also no secret that Egypt’s role has also been dwarfed and lost influence, surrendering its pioneer regional role by following Saudi Arabia, being hostile towards Turkey and at other times towards the UAE and Qatar.
Washington believes that giving US weapons to armies guarantees relative direct and indirect influence on the affairs of these countries, however, the track record of the two countries since the 25 January revolution confirmed to Washington the weakness of its direct and indirect influence on the regime in Egypt. Meanwhile, suspending military aid to Egypt for more than 18 months barely had any impact on the US using Egyptian airspace and facilities crossing the Suez Canal.
Bilateral relations are very stagnant in structure despite what appears to be dramatic events. Several months ago, Obama’s administration decided to begin sending military aid to Egypt and lifted a freeze on sending 12 F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon missile systems, and spare parts for 125 M1A1 tanks. Egypt also recently received critical military spare parts for the Egyptian Navy. However, Washington initiated an end to Egypt buying weapons by credit starting in 2018.
At the same time, while the US administration did not meet with a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) delegation in Washington two weeks ago, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was “no change in the US administration’s policy on the Muslim Brotherhood”. Earnest added that it is a matter of the White House choosing the right time for such meetings. Before that, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry met with US Ambassador to Cairo Robert Stephen Beecroft to protest the visit by the MB delegation to Washington.
Recent important developments also include the release of Egyptian-American citizen Mohamed Salah Sultan after being imprisoned for more than two years. More recently, Egypt named its new ambassador to Israel who will take up his post within weeks, which is an important step in Washington’s eyes since Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv two and a half years ago in protest of Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip.
Naturally, the US supports Egypt’s efforts in its war against terrorism in Sinai, although Washington has a structurally different view than Cairo regarding Syria and Libya. Accordingly, the US rejected a call by President El-Sisi for a Security Council resolution to create an international coalition to intervene in Libya after strikes by the Egyptian Air Force against ISIS targets in Libya when 21 innocent Egyptians were slaughtered. This deepened the fracture in bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, although Cairo does not see an appropriate alternative to the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Washington insists that Assad has no place or role in Syria’s future. Washington also believes the MB has a key role on the greater regional scene whether in Syria, Libya or Yemen, which is also something that the Saudi government has realised, but Cairo rejects the notion.
Despite broad regional challenges, Egypt’s domestic affairs will be prominent on the agenda of the strategic dialogue. Criticism by Obama’s administration in a testimony to Congress last month about actions by the Egyptian government and an admission of Cairo’s failures in democracy, arrests of thousands of political opponents, stifling freedoms and failing to hold security forces accountable for abuses also indicates the scope of differences on domestic issues. However, the testimony also included confirmation of Egypt’s importance for US national security.
President Obama will leave office in less than 18 months and Washington will be preoccupied with presidential elections. It does not seem that the Egyptian government has any intention of scaling back hostilities against political opponents, whether Islamists or otherwise.
Accordingly, the strategic dialogue will not be an opportunity to boost relations, but rather a reminder of the spectrum of differences and may even deepen them, especially since Cairo can no longer impact raging Middle East issues.
The writer is a researcher focused on Egyptian politics.