Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

US-Egyptian strategic dialogue

The resumption of strategic dialogue between Washington and Cairo may not end the former’s criticisms, but does indicate the depth of shared interests, writes Amr Abdel-Atti

Al-Ahram Weekly

The US-Egyptian strategic dialogue, which began in 1988, resumed on 3 August after a six-year hiatus. The interval in this bilateral relation had been tense, especially after the revolutions of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013, and specifically after 3 July 2013, which saw the removal of President Mohamed Morsi.

Washington regarded Morsi as the first Egyptian civilian president brought to power through free and fair elections. His ouster was led by a member of the Egyptian military establishment who had attended a US military academy.

The revival of the dialogue is a reflection of the value the US places on its strategic partnership with Egypt, which is based on a range of common interests, most notably: strengthening stability and prosperity in Egypt, securing peace in the region, safeguarding the peace treaty with Israel, and fighting extremism and terrorism throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The resumption of the dialogue “inaugurates a new phase in the relations between the two countries”, the US State Department said on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Egypt. He held the first of the renewed dialogue sessions against the backdrop of a number of changes and developments that have forced themselves onto the agenda.

With respect to the US, the Barack Obama administration, as it approaches the end of its second term, is not keen to invest too much energy in a region that is so rife with problems and crises.

As it reduces its direct engagement in regional issues, it is relying more on regional allies and proxies to intervene directly, in a way that safeguards US interests. The dialogue comes at a time when the failure of US strategy in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group has come under heated criticism by Republican and Democratic politicians who have their sights fixed on the presidential elections scheduled for November 2016.

It also comes at a time of anger in the Gulf over the nuclear agreement struck between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna, despite Washington’s attempts to reassure Gulf states that the agreement will not jeopardise their interests and that the US will not abandon them if their security is threatened.

As for Egypt, the dialogue sessions come at a time when the Egyptian government is continuing its drive to assert its legitimacy at home and abroad, as the Muslim Brotherhood and certain regional powers continue their campaign to lobby foreign governments against the “Sisi regime.”

At the same time, the Egyptian government is working to produce an economic boom that will boost its popularity and legitimacy among large segments of the population that have been gravely affected by from the struggling economy.

The resumption of the strategic dialogue coincides with Egyptian efforts to combat the terrorism that has proliferated in the Sinai, the threat of which also looms from the direction of Libya, which has become a safe haven for terrorists since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The bilateral strategic dialogue promotes a number of interests for both sides. Prime among them is cooperation in the fight against terrorist organisations whose power and influence in the region have expanded since the collapse of Arab regimes and governments, and the collapse of some countries into failed states following the Arab uprisings.

The most flagrant example is the rise of IS, its seizure of control over vast tracts of land in Iraq and Syria and its proclamation of an “Islamic caliphate” there.

The US has offered various forms of military and intelligence support to help Egypt in its fight against terrorist organisations. In a phone call to Egypt on 31 March, President Obama informed his Egyptian counterpart of his decision to end the suspension of parts of US military aid to Egypt.

The suspension had been in effect since October 2013, imposed following Egyptian military intervention to oust the Muslim Brotherhood regime. This was regardless of the fact that the action was in response to the massive popular demonstrations in protest against Muslim Brotherhood rule and the Morsi presidency. Obama’s end of the suspension has unlocked $1.3 billion in US military support to assist Egypt in its fight against terrorism and extremism.

Washington, through the strategic dialogue, also seeks to benefit from the Egyptian regional role, which has been revived after a period of decline. Cairo has once again begun to engage in regional issues and is instrumental to the realisation of regional security and stability, which serves US interests.

More recently, Washington has also sought Egyptian support for the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 and Cairo’s help in persuading the Arab Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, in particular, that the agreement does not come at the expense of Gulf security.

Egypt has also been helping the international community in the drive to bring stability to Libya where the power vacuum has been a boon to terrorist organisations, and IS in particular.

Not long before this there had been some tension in Egyptian-US relations over the Libya question because of Washington’s refusal to back an Egyptian proposal for a UN resolution that would mandate the creation of an international coalition to intervene in Libya.

Tensions over this question heightened when IS in Libya massacred 21 Egyptian civilians, compelling the Egyptian Air Force to retaliate by striking IS targets in Libya.

Egypt’s continued commitment to the peace treaty with Israel is another major US concern.

But the return to the strategic dialogue after a six-year hiatus also offers Egypt the opportunity to realise two chief interests, apart from the resumption of US military aid and US support for Egypt in its war against terrorism in the Sinai.

The first is affirmation of the legitimacy of the regime of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The resumption of the strategic dialogue was preceded by a meeting between the Egyptian and US presidents during the UN General Assembly inaugural sessions in September last year, and the US secretary of state’s presence at the Egyptian economic conference in March. The meeting and Kerry’s visit constituted recognition by the world’s foremost power of the post-30 June 2013 order in Egypt. This recognition was sealed by the unfreezing of military aid, which had been suspended for nearly two years.

Such steps bolster the confidence of the Egyptian government as it addresses a range of crucial challenges at home and abroad as, in the final analysis, the openness of international powers to the Egyptian regime implicitly bolsters its legitimacy.

The second interest is economic. During the dialogue session, the US secretary of state pledged that his country would offer assistance to help revive the Egyptian economy. This would entail joint efforts to attract foreign investment, resuming bilateral talks within the context of the framework agreement on trade and investment, working with Egypt to promote the protection of intellectual property rights, US-Egyptian cooperation to promote small and middle-size enterprises and companies, and working with Egypt to develop and implement a comprehensive energy strategy.

While the US-Egyptian strategic dialogue is an affirmation that these countries need each other, this has not prevented Washington from criticising Egypt for actions and policies it deems inimical to human rights and freedoms.

Before Kerry’s visit to Cairo to attend the strategic dialogue session, six US Congress members sent him a letter stating that as important as Egypt is to American strategic interests, human rights needed to take a priority in the strategic dialogue.

Also in advance of the visit, Kerry met with the Egyptian-American journalist Mohamed Soltan (son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Sultan), after his release, in Washington.

During the strategic dialogue session, the secretary of state stressed that it was not possible to fight terrorism effectively without respect for human rights, and that the fight against terrorism was contingent on building trust between political authorities and the people.

This said, differences over this question always vanish in the face of mutual interests and the needs for cooperation, especially when it comes to the war against terrorism, the stability of Egypt and Egypt’s continued commitment to the peace treaty, which is in both Egypt’s and the US’s interests.

The writer is an expert in US affairs and associate editor of Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya.

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