Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt will be vital to Trump

Reviewing the output of a recent two-day conference in Cairo bringing together practitioners and scholars to discuss the state of relations between the US and the Arab world

Nabil Fahmi, former Egyptian foreign minister and the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo, and Wendy Chamberlin, former US ambassador and president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, inaugurated a two-day conference titled “Arab-US Relations in Perspective,” held in Cairo 29-30 January 2017.

The conference hosted leading experts and practitioners from the Middle East and the United States, among whom are Ambassador Frank Wisner, former US ambassador to Egypt, Mohamed Tewfik, former Egyptian ambassador to the US, Paul Salem, vice-president of MEI and Nassif Hitti, former Arab League ambassador to Paris and Rome. This in addition to prominent scholars and academics such as Professor Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat, professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, Mohamed Kamal, professor of political science at Cairo University, and others. Together, they discussed topics highly relevant to Egypt, the region and the US in light of the new American administration.

The following are the findings and recommendations of the said conference, which were drafted jointly by this writer and Paul Salem to capture the valued output of the two-day discussions and offers concrete and creative suggestions for the way ahead.

- The change in administration in Washington carries with it new challenges and new opportunities for the countries of the Middle East, especially in light of the volatile political landscape in the region. The US and its Arab friends and allies in the region should work together to rebuild trust, develop fresh and promising approaches to the region’s challenges and identify new areas of cooperation.
- A strong, stable and prosperous Egypt is an essential element of strong Arab-US relations and a key component of a stable, peaceful and prosperous region. Egyptian-US cooperation is key in addressing the region’s political, economic and security challenges.
- The promising relationship between the presidents of Egypt and the US should be extended within the institutions of the two governments, and broadened to include engagement at the economic and social levels with wider interaction between the two societies.
- Egypt and the Arab countries have an interest in ensuring that the US remains engaged and influential in the Middle East. The US and its Arab allies should work together to confront terrorism and extremism, end ongoing civil wars and rebuild state sovereignty and regional stability. In pursuit of these goals, they should find ways to press Iran to forego policies of regional intervention, and look for areas of common interest with Russia and avoid further international confrontation.
- Egypt is a key ally, both for the Arab states and the US, in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Egypt is waging its own war against terrorist groups in Sinai, but it can also play a key role in countering the extremist narrative through the centrality of Al-Azhar University within the wider Muslim world.
- Egypt and the US can take an early lead in discussing the pressing issues and challenges facing the region and how the US and its Arab partners can best address them. The early meeting of presidents Al-Sisi and Trump presents a good opportunity for such an open and candid discussion. The meeting should be carefully prepared, bringing new and fresh ideas to the table aimed at establishing a true partnership.
- Addressing the failed state situation in Libya is imperative for the security of neighbouring Arab and Sub-Saharan states. Egypt is well placed to act as a mediator between competing groups, advancing an agenda for peace.
- The situation in Yemen is partly a domestic conflict and partly a result of an Iranian attempt to project power into the Arabian Peninsula threatening Saudi security and stability. The Trump administration should work with its Arab friends and with the UN to find a political settlement to the conflict, end Iranian attempts at power projection, and create a new dynamic of Yemeni-Gulf relations including commitments to assist economic recovery and reconstruction.
- Egypt can help support Arab-US efforts in the defeat of IS (the Islamic State group) and Al-Qaeda, and assist in bringing about a political settlement between the Syrian government and the opposition.
- To sustain any victories over IS and Al-Qaeda in the long term, leaders and states should be aware of the need for inclusive political and economic arrangements that address the grievances that radical terrorist groups used to position themselves in the Middle East in the first place. Resolving these grievances will keep terrorist groups at bay in the future.
- Not precluding the inclination of the Trump administration to explore new, imaginative trajectories for a comprehensive and lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the two-state solution remains the most viable approach to advocate. The Trump administration with Egypt and other Arab partners should revive the Arab-Israeli peace process and be creative and assertive about making concrete and sustained progress towards its realisation. Any American move to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem would fuel conflict not only in the Palestinian territories but in the broader Arab and Muslim world.
- Arab perceptions that Iran has taken advantage of the chaos in the region to further its interests is a serious and widespread view. Arab-Iranian rivalries fuel proxy wars and are an important destabilising factor in the region. The US and its Arab partners should promote a strategy that de-escalates regional conflicts, reduces proxy interventions, rebuilds failed states and works towards promoting a rules-based — in other words, Westphalian — regional state order. In the long run, it is in everyone’s interest to see a balance of power restored among regional as well as outside powers. This approach should include increasing the national security capacity of Arab countries.
- In this context, one of the most vexing questions is how to find the way past the divisive relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which remains at the heart of many of the region’s conflicts. Egypt is well-placed to offer ideas and channels that could help build bridges between the two countries. Abatement of the intense contest between them rests on mutual recognition of security needs, potential and actual.
- Whilst the basic tenets of the US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) relationship, such as energy, counterterrorism and military cooperation remain solid, there are a number of factors that introduce new elements into the relationship. These include the rise of a generation of younger leaders in Arab Gulf States, as well as questions over US policy on Yemen, Iran and Israel. The fate of JASTA also hangs as a lingering irritant. Strong US-GCC relations are essential for the stability and prosperity of the region. The two sides should move quickly to address differences, boost cooperation and work together towards confronting the region’s challenges and realising its potential.  
- In addition to the very pressing crises of terrorism, civil war and proxy conflict, the Arab world faces other long term challenges that include persistent poverty, high unemployment, slow economic growth, high demographic growth, dwindling land and water resources, and the escalating impacts of climate change. Addressing these long term challenges requires regional planning and cooperation as well as international support, not only from the US and Europe, but also from Russia, China, Japan and other global economic powers.
- There is also a need for sustained movement forward in the broadening of civic and political rights and steady progress towards accountable and transparent government. This is necessary for human dignity and empowerment, for better governance, and in order to foster a more stable and productive state-society relationship that can stand firm against the dangers of placing identity politics above collective national identity and promoting sectarianism and radicalisation over inclusion and national unity.
- The region also continues to suffer from a gender deficit and the marginalisation of women. There is also a critical stagnation in Arab cultural production due largely to stagnated educational systems and a lack of intellectual and cultural freedom. All these issues demand sustained regional and international attention.
- Real and continuous security threats are looming worldwide and need to be addressed forcefully with concrete security measures. It is, however, imperative that the US and the Arab world stand against xenophobic policies and rhetoric and promote tolerance and compassion.
- In conclusion, Egypt and the US should move quickly to rebuild trust, deepen their communication and cooperation and work together to boost Arab-US relations and to address challenges — and build on opportunities — in the region. There should be an agreed framework for regular consultations, not only at the presidential level, but also throughout the two administrations, and among the two societies and economies.
- Egypt can also be pivotal in hosting Arab-US consultations both through the Arab League and its own good offices. The Egyptian-US relationship is over four decades old, and built on enduring common interests. Despite periodic ebbs and flows, which is natural in any international partnership, now is the time to seize the positive initiative once again in building a more stable and prosperous Middle East.

The writer is a professor of practice and director of the Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Centre for American Studies and Research at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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