Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New prospects for US-Egypt relations

Upcoming visits by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Washington bode well for the re-establishment of US-Egypt relations

Al-Sisi during his meeting with Trump in New York in September
Al-Sisi during his meeting with Trump in New York in September

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is heading to Washington shortly for a two-day visit to meet with officials of the US administration, including the secretary of state and national security advisor.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that Shoukri would present Egypt’s view of the region and ways of strengthening bilateral relations in the framework of efforts to bring about peace in the region.

According to diplomatic sources in Cairo, the visit is a prelude to a visit by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Washington next month. Experts in Egypt-US political and security relations said the agenda for the visit would extend beyond bilateral concerns to the larger situation in the region.

Emphasis would be placed on Egypt’s role in the region and the joint role it could play with the US administration, the sources said.

Commentators are optimistic about the prospects for relations between the US and Egypt following the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president in January, with the US president responding positively to an Egyptian initiative for closer relations at the strategic level.

An Egyptian source in Washington informed about diplomatic developments told Al-Ahram Weekly that the anticipated rapprochement in Egypt-US relations would likely restore them to their traditional form, with Egypt being seen as an important US ally in the Middle East region and being recognised as such by US government agencies.

The US would not try to impose its views on Cairo, the source said, but instead there would be space for Cairo to shape a joint vision of ways in which the two countries could work together bilaterally and regionally.

The tensions in the bilateral relationship that came about after the 30 June Revolution, when Egypt was the target of criticisms in the US media, would be assuaged, the source said. The Trump administration has a high regard for Egypt and Egypt’s role in the region, and this has been recognised through the exchange of visits and Al-Sisi’s forthcoming visit to Washington.

Forthcoming congressional decisions should contribute to strengthening this relationship, among them the resumption of US aid to Egypt.

Mohamed Kamal, a professor of political science at Cairo University and an expert on Egypt-US relations, said the key to reviving the dynamism in the relationship between the US and Egypt lay in formulating common visions for the Middle East, the partnership in the fight against terrorism, US support for Cairo, and coordination in the handling of regional issues.

“The Trump administration has not yet developed a comprehensive vision of the Middle East. As a result, if the US administration will be writing the first draft of the agenda of this relationship, Cairo will be writing the second, helping to crystallise its vision,” Kamal said.

Former deputy director of intelligence and security expert Osama Al-Garidli told the Weekly that “the new US administration accords the highest priority to the fight against terrorism in its approach to the region. It sees Egypt as a particularly highly valued partner in this regard, seeing cooperation on counter-terrorism as requiring a much more effective exchange of information.”

There were crucial aspects of the fight against terrorism, he said, among them the need to dry up its sources of funding and the acquisition of the equipment needed to unearth terrorist hideouts.

The reason Egypt had decided not to play a major role in the international coalition in Syria was that it was too selective. “You cannot fight terrorism in Syria and ignore it in Libya,” he said. “The former Obama administration sidelined Egypt in the fight against terrorism. The opposite will be the case under the Trump administration.”

“Egypt could also offer its expertise in the fight against extremist thought and the renovation of religious discourse through Al-Azhar and other institutions,” Kamal said.

On 23 January, Trump told Al-Sisi in a telephone call that the US appreciated the difficulties Egypt had sustained in the fight against terrorism. He stressed that his administration would be willing to offer all the necessary support to Egypt and to develop bilateral cooperation at various levels.

THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: There is still some wariness in the US about designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, according to a recent article by Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Omar Abdel-Ati, an expert on US affairs at the quarterly journal Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya, said that a pro-Egypt camp in the US Congress was in favour of designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and that this was supported by members of the Trump administration.

Among them was Michael Flynn, who recently resigned as national security advisor, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who puts the Brotherhood on a par with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

However, Abdel-Ati said that it was unlikely that the US would issue a blanket ban on all Muslim Brotherhood organisations in view of its need to deal with the government in Turkey, a portion of which shares an outlook similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also functions as a façade for the Muslim Brotherhood in the US.

According to Abdel-Ati, even the alternative of restricting the terrorist designation to specific Muslim Brotherhood organisations, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood alone, might pose difficulties in the US as there is still a body of opinion that believes it represents “moderate Islam” and says that during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt Cairo did not object to sustaining relations with Israel.

A more realistic option, therefore, would be to impose certain restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, for example by preventing it from lobbying for reconciliation or assimilation into the political process in Egypt, or for the release of its leaders from prison.

Al-Garidli said that were Egypt to offer assurances that the organisation was linked to funding terrorism in Egypt and was involved in terrorist attacks through subsidiary organisations and incited violence, this might encourage the US towards designating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

MILITARY SUPPORT: US military support for Egypt will be top of the agenda during Shoukri’s visit to Washington, as it will during the visit by Al-Sisi.

“It falls under the heading of counter-terrorism at both the local and regional levels, with regard to which Egypt plays a crucial role,” Kamal said. “However, what has not yet been determined is whether there will be a need for Egyptian military assistance in striking terrorist targets in Libya. Other ways of helping in Yemen and Syria might also come up. The situation in the Sinai will be discussed and what will be required from Washington is support for the role Egypt plays in this regard.”

While this may encourage some increase in military support from the US, Kamal did not anticipate a large increase in military aid, as the administration has repeatedly voiced its belief that US allies should bear more of the costs of their own security.

“Sustaining the current level of aid plus the lifting of the restrictions that were imposed under the previous administration in itself constitutes a gain,” he said.

Ibrahim Al-Ghitani, a researcher at the Future Centre for Advanced Studies, agreed, adding that further contributions from the US to help Egypt in its war against terrorism should be anticipated.

Al-Garidli anticipated a revival of the joint Bright Star military manoeuvres that were suspended following the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. “Both Egypt and the US benefit from these manoeuvres,” he said. “Their halt was one of the signs of the decline in the bilateral relationship during the Obama era, and their resumption will be a further sign of improved US relations with Egypt.”

REGIONAL SECURITY: Al-Garidli said it was difficult to speak of Arab national security and regional security in isolation because of the countries bordering the Arab region.

“The region is not a monolithic entity. Each country has its own set of calculations which differ from those of other powers. Iran, Turkey and Israel are regional powers, as are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These countries are not on the same wavelength. However, there are subsidiary areas where arrangements could be reached, such as in the Red Sea region, North Africa, or the Egypt-Libya region,” he said.

“Such arrangements might be called ‘regional interfaces’, but they would not be the equivalent to the EU or ASEAN in Southeast Asia.”

This raised the question of a possible Sunni-Israeli coalition against Iran, though Al-Garidli said that any such talk was exaggerated. “While it is true that there is evidence of a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf countries, for example, it is difficult to see this developing into some kind of coalition,” he said.

“To think so would be an exercise in fantasy. During the Gulf War, Israel also offered to intervene, and this offer was rejected. The same thing continues to apply today in the case of Syria and other issues, and any direct alignment against Iran would render the region more volatile.”

“However, calculations meant to foster deterrence are another matter, and Iran is the common denominator in all regional conflicts. Whether we are speaking of the conflict in Yemen or those in Iraq and Syria, Iran is present in each case. Whenever we speak of tensions, Iran is there. However, it would be hard for the US administration to move toward an open confrontation with Iran, because the nuclear agreement from the Obama administration is a difficult legacy.”

“Washington says that the fight against terrorism is its first priority, and it also says that Iran is the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism. However, it will not breach the Iran nuclear agreement through any other but conventional means, such as continuing to impose sanctions. A confrontation with Iran would be difficult because Iran could harm Washington’s allies in the region. It has a missile programme to be reckoned with, and it has good relations with China and Russia,” Al-Garidli said.

He added that Iran could be handled indirectly via Yemen, through the US drone programme and military actions in the Red Sea to deter Iranian behaviour there. The return of the aircraft carrier USS Cole to the Red Sea was an indication of this, he said.

Al-Garidli said that the Egyptian position was balanced and that Cairo was not antagonistic toward Iran. It supported promoting peace and stability in the region, and it refused to get involved in sectarian alliances. Cairo would not agree to committing forces on the ground in the conflicts in Syria or Iraq, he said.

THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT: It is still not known how the Trump administration will handle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

According to Said Okasha, an editorial advisor to the periodical Mukhtarat Israeliya, the initial strategy of the Trump administration was to support countries capable of solving the current crisis in the peace process.

“Trump has already listened to King Abdullah of Jordan and to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and his secretary of state has moved to hear the views of other regional powers such as Turkey. President Al-Sisi’s views when he visits Washington will most likely crown the formulation of a vision shaped by the parties that have it in the power to offer a solution,” Okasha said.

Okasha predicted “a drive similar to the Oslo Process, but with an expansion in the scope of participation to include Saudi Arabia and to bring in other regional parties such as Turkey to guarantee an agreement, in view of the influence they have over Hamas.”

Such a scenario would not be without obstacles, he said, such as the tensions between Cairo and Ankara and the “psychological barrier” between Trump and Saudi Arabia. But the drive could give rise to “a historic agreement on a formula for negotiations on the basis of the pre-1967 borders with land exchanges involving less than five per cent of the territory instead of 6.5 per cent, for example,” he said.

Although there have been signs in this direction, they have been countered by Israeli actions such as the leak of an Aqaba meeting in which Al-Sisi took part last year, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that was neither refuted nor confirmed by Egypt.

Another negative sign has been the drive by 22 Knesset members in Israel to collect support for the rejection of initiatives based on the Arab initiative adopted at the Beirut Summit in 2002.

“On the whole, the era of Washington-proposed and sponsored solutions is over. So too is the era of partial solutions. It has become necessary to take this issue by the horns. The Arab countries do not want to keep the conflict open as a springboard for extremist groups, and Israel is confronted with a mounting delegitimisation movement that it has been unable to withstand,” Okasha said.

In sum, there are many issues forming a platform for a revival in Egypt-US relations. “There are no preconditions or restrictions. The American view towards this region is fluid because the current administration will take some time, perhaps a year, to consolidate one,” Kamal said.

“What Egypt must do is to focus on this window of opportunity and use the time well. All these issues and others have undoubtedly remained unattended to for a long time. The anticipated Egypt-US meetings will put them back on the table in a much clearer way,” he concluded.

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