Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The visit

President Al-Sisi looks set to soon visit Washington. It will be a historic opportunity to put US-Egyptian relations back on the right track

Monday, 23 January 2017, was the first business day for President Donald Trump at the White House. On that day, the new US president had a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The last time an American president talked with Al-Sisi over the phone had been former president Barack Obama back in 2015. According to the press secretary of the White House, and in his first news conference of the Trump presidency, the phone conversation discussed bilateral relations between the United States and Egypt underlining that President Trump pointed out that Washington would help Egypt in its economic reform programme and that US military assistance to Cairo would be maintained to help Egypt fight terrorism. Furthermore, the White House press secretary said that the two presidents discussed a forthcoming visit of President Al-Sisi to Washington at the invitation of President Trump.

No date has been announced yet for such a visit, although there have been some reports that it could take place sooner rather than later. The exact date will be agreed upon through diplomatic channels. This visit, once it takes place, will open a new chapter in Egyptian-American relations, and hopefully a promising one.

The last time an Egyptian president visited Washington was seven years ago, and it was not a bilateral visit. Former president Hosni Mubarak had flown to the US capital in September 2010 to participate in a Middle Eastern summit called by former president Obama to restart peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The participants included, also, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

The last bilateral visit by an Egyptian president to the United States dates back to 2004 when former president Mubarak visited former president Georges W Bush on his ranch in Texas. From that date onwards, relations between Cairo and Washington soured, save for a very brief period of time from the Cairo University speech of Obama to the Muslim world on 4 June 2009 till the first half of January 2011. The US administration of president Obama got entangled afterwards in the so-called “Arab Spring”.

Such entanglement reached a climax when Obama called on president Mubarak to step down, which he did 11 February 2011. From that day onwards, American diplomacy in Egypt became rudderless and reflected a surprising lack of deep knowledge and understanding of the modern political history of Egypt. Things almost got out of control with the US reaction to the downfall of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 2012 to 2013. The popular uprising that led to this outcome was dubbed a “coup” by the Americans, although US officials had gone to great lengths not to mention the word in public to avoid stopping all assistance to Egypt. Nonetheless, the US administration of president Obama slammed sanctions, both economic and military, on Egypt — an unprecedented measure in the annals of Egyptian-American relations since both countries restored their diplomatic relations in April 1974. A Trump presidency could put these relations back on track once again.

Needless to say, it is too early to predict how relations between the United States and Egypt will fare in the next four years. The two governments should be fully aware of the limits of their alliance in the context of fast-moving changes in the regional landscape in the Middle East and North Africa.

President Trump promised to obliterate what he termed “radical Islamic terrorism” from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, Egypt is fighting terrorism on its eastern and western borders and definitely would welcome more cooperation and assistance from the Americans in this respect. However, the Americans should define what exactly they mean by “radical Islamic terrorism”. Their fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East should not be interpreted as a fight against Islam or Muslims in general. In this case, Egypt would be very reluctant to participate. The expected Egyptian-American summit at the White House should lay to rest any doubts on this score.

Another question, no less important than the previous one, is the future of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This matter is, undoubtedly, of paramount importance for Egypt. The consensus is that the administration of Donald Trump is the most pro-Israel among all US administrations from the establishment of Israel, save the administration of Lyndon Johnson during the Six-Day War of June 1967. The government of Israel under Netanyahu is aware of this and has made it clear that it intends to marshal American support behind its positions regarding peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister will visit the White House in the second half of February 2017, weeks after Israeli authorities announced the building of hundreds of construction units in the West Bank, in addition to more than 500 apartments in East Jerusalem. In a phone call between Trump and Netanyahu on Sunday, 22 January, it was obvious that peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is not a top priority for the two who gave precedence to advancing and strengthening American-Israeli special relations. The American president emphasised the importance Washington places on closer military and security cooperation between the two countries. Furthermore, the two leaders agreed “to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran”, according to a White House readout.

The Egyptian president should emphasise that the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace and security in the Middle East, and that the frenzied pace of building them is destroying chances for a two-state solution. He should also speak about the dividends of peace for the parties concerned, once peace is secured between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The upcoming summit between President Trump and President Al-Sisi should be an occasion to discuss in detail who are the common enemies of both and who are their allies and partners in the challenging regional environment in the Middle East. Moreover, the Egyptian president should stress that in order to win the fight against terrorist groups we have to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs and the Muslims.

President Al-Sisi will do well to speak about the necessity of adopting a comprehensive approach to defeating terrorism, and not to rely, solely, on the use of force. Hopefully, he will find listening ears in the White House.

The upcoming visit of President Al-Sisi to Washington will send a strong message, far and wide, in the Middle East that the White House under a new president is open to coordinate with Egypt in meeting the serious challenges facing the Middle East, and that Egyptian-American relations will become a major pillar of security and stability in the region. These strengthened relations will contribute to a new configuration of forces in the region different from those that the Obama administration favoured.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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