Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Positive signs

John Kerry’s recent statements on his stopover in Cairo attest to a renewed engagement by Washington after years of tension. Egypt should work to keep it that way, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

I wanted to write this week about the US-Gulf Summit that took place 21 April in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. However, in light of the stopover that John Kerry, the US secretary of state, made in Cairo on 20 April, on his way to join the summit in the Saudi capital the following day, I thought it more appropriate to dedicate my weekly article to this important event.

It goes without saying that US-Egyptian relations have gone through very rough waters over the last five years. I would argue that this period could be considered the lowest point in relations between the United States and Egypt since 1974, the year the two countries re-established diplomatic relations, and 1979, the year that Egypt and Israel signed the historic peace treaty on the White House lawn on 26 March.

Kerry’s brief stopover came one month after his statement, on 18 March, that he was “deeply concerned by the deterioration in the human rights situation in Egypt in recent weeks and months, including the reported decision this week by the Egyptian government to re-open an investigation of Egyptian non-governmental organisations documenting human rights abuses and defending the freedoms enshrined in Egypt’s constitution.”

Said Kerry, “Restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security.” He urged the government of Egypt “to work with civic groups to ease restrictions on association and expression and to take action to allow these and other human rights NGOs to operate freely.”

During his stopover, the US secretary of state met Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the Egyptian foreign minister. After the meeting, Kerry said, “We talked, of course, about politics, about Syria, about Libya, where there are real challenges and where Egypt is being enormously helpful ... And we also talked about ways in which we can ... resolve some of the differences and questions that have arisen about the internal politics and choices for the people of Egypt.”

The US secretary of state promised to soon return to Cairo to continue discussions with Egyptian officials. He emphasised that the United States is “deeply committed ... to the stability of Egypt and to helping Egypt through the difficult challenges that it faces.”

He went through some of these challenges. He said, “We care enormously about ... succeeding in overcoming the difficult challenges that Egypt faces at this moment, both in terms of security, the challenge of extremists who engage in activities that create instability and attack the peace and security of all citizens everywhere, and also the challenge of an economy that needs to see greater investment, more job creation and growth.”

Kerry added: “The United States wants to help in those endeavours, and in furtherance of that, I will come back with additional thoughts about ways in which we can work together to invigorate the economy, to attract investment, to create jobs, and also ways that we can work together in order to deal with Daesh [Islamic State group] particularly and to help Egypt in terms of the security concerns that it has today.”

From the quotes above, the triad of challenges that the United States is willing to help Egypt overcome is politics, security and economy. Needless to say, this triad poses a very serious challenge, not only to the stability of Egypt but also to the success of its democratic transition in the long term. If Egypt cannot cope effectively and resolutely with these challenges in the medium term, the political and economic situation in the country will become both problematic and — unfortunately — intractable.

To overcome this triad, Egypt needs the backing and support of the United States and the European Union. The quid pro quo for such backing, from the Western point of view, is a more open political space in Egypt and a determination to honour the basic principles of good governance, one of which a respect for human rights and democratic principles. Luckily, most Western capitals, including Washington DC, recognise the enormous problems that Egypt is coping with right now, particularly in the field of security and fighting terrorism in Sinai and on its western borders with Libya.

Within the US administration, Kerry is considered a friend of Egypt. I have been tracking his positions on the evolving situation in the country from the first day he succeeded Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in the second term of the Obama administration. He was the first senior US official to visit Cairo after the June 2013 Revolution and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. He stopped over in Cairo in early November 2013 for a couple of hours to meet then Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

That was the beginning of a renewed engagement with Cairo. According to a congressional resolution that was passed at the beginning of 2014, the US secretary of state should certify twice a year that Egypt continue receiving American military and economic assistance, provided that it has met conditions cited in the resolution, including respect for the peace treaty with Israel, respect for human rights and democratic principles, and that the US assistance serves the national interests of the United States.

The remarks that Kerry made in Cairo on 20 April testify to the fact that, so far, the US administration still believes that Egypt should enjoy the congressional waiver on aid. It is in Egypt’s national interest that we keep it this way.

We stand to gain from strengthening the renewed positive engagement with the United States that was manifest in Kerry’s remarks in Cairo. It is difficult to imagine how we could overcome the very serious challenges facing us without such an engagement.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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