Monday,22 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Monday,22 October, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt-US relations in perspective

The stability of Egypt and the Middle East region are indivisibly linked. If Trump wants to quell conflicts raging in the latter, he must support the former in practical ways that count

The recent apparent rapprochement between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and President Donald Trump seems to have initially raised some eyebrows, particularly when President Al-Sisi withdrew a draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building following a phone call with the US president. The resolution was reintroduced by New Zealand. Egypt then cast its vote in favour of the resolution, along with the 14 other member states. The resolution only passed after the Obama administration, in its last days, took the decision to abstain. Egypt’s argument, then, was that it aimed to give the new administration ample space to integrate the settlements into a final solution. It was a clear signal from Egypt to turn the page on the Obama administration and venture into a new beginning.

On the other hand, there is readiness by the new administration to change course, and question the US traditional role as the world’s policeman. The Trump administration has already revealed its reluctance to manage world conflicts and geopolitics. Nonetheless, the US is ready to govern while brandishing a big stick to supervise and co-manage conflicts at the regional and sub-regional levels. Trump’s worldview on his campaign trail attests to such a trend. His tagged isolationist doctrine, which is also dubbed by some as “Trump’s realpolitik”, focused on three policy areas. The upright opposition of the US to being exploited by its allies; overturning many decades of free trade ideology; and a full support for autocracy, with the expectation that the new administration will not shy away from “trumping” any move that is not to its liking.

Though many question marks surround the Trump administration in its dealing with the Middle East region, one thing seems certain: President Trump is adamantly focused on destroying the Islamic State group. Such an agenda, however, poses enormous challenges. The Trump administration cannot afford being directly involved in any large-scale military engagements because of US popular opposition. Moreover, Trump has reiterated time and again that he was not a fan of full-scale interventions. As a result, the new administration will need to bank on trustworthy allies in the Middle East. The US is eyeing Egypt, convinced that it can play a stabilising role in the region. Because Egypt has distanced itself from the escalating rivalry between the emerging powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, refused to support the overthrow of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, attempted to defuse the Yemeni crisis and continued to work diligently with all Libyan factions in the hope of reaching a political solution.

This offers Egypt an opportunity to play a leading role. It is well-known that Egypt’s weight in the region collapsed after 2011.

A successful meeting between President Al-Sisi and President Trump would be a positive step towards reinvigorating relations between the two countries, which are contingent on military and intelligence collaboration. The role of Egypt’s military continues to be a source of regime stability, and a solid underpinning in the fight against terrorism. The long history of cooperation between the Egyptian and the US militaries must be continued and renewed as the foundation of bilateral strategic relations in support of the regional counterterrorism campaign.

There is need to overcome the significant decrease in exchange and engagement between the two militaries after 2011, particularly after the reserved position the Obama administration took in light of the July 2013 overthrow of the Mohamed Morsi regime. Egypt is keen on upholding these strategic military relations and restoring them to their previous status. There are also positive expectations that the Trump administration will most likely prioritise support for military leaders in the region, such as President Al-Sisi, to preserve US interests, as opposed to the military engagements favoured by the two previous administrations.

During the “high days” of relations between Egypt and the US, the stability and economic interests of Egypt were well served in return for extensive facilities and support of a wide variety of US interests in the region. A generous assistance package, a writing-off of military debt in addition to forceful US intervention with debtor countries and the IMF for a gradual rescheduling programme were part of the quid pro quo cooperation packages in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The Obama administration’s policy was detrimental to Egypt and to the entire region. Its unsubstantiated call for Egypt to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood was discredited by the Egyptian administration.

A revamped relationship will have to be regular and trickle down to the institutions, think tanks and civil society in both countries. Establishing a frank and regular dialogue to air differences and strengthen points of convergence will help create a better understanding between the two countries.

Yet, it is too early to predict the turn such a renewed relation will take. Counterterrorism seems to be a new area to add to shared interests. However, to date no actual strategy has been put in place. In this context, what the US will need the most are countries in the region to help halt the spread of political Islam. However, even though counterterrorism has been prioritised in US policy in the region, along with support for Israel and its control of Iraqi oil, counterterrorism cannot be considered the sole, new alternative for a long-term relationship between the US and the region, and between Egypt and the US in particular. It is incorrect to assume relations will improve substantially simply because of a shared interest in counterterrorism.

If the US decides to fight Islamist terrorism in the region, it is in the interest of the US to ensure the stability and security of its potential partners, including Egypt. Washington has the opportunity to promote the Egyptian economy by making it more attractive to foreign investors, and assisting Egypt’s difficult transition to economic stability. Egypt and the US will have to rethink the terms of their relations afresh, set their priorities straight, of which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though clearly marginalised today, will continue to be the last hope for peaceful coexistence.

In these turbulent times, a strong Egyptian economy is an essential asset to regional security, a major US concern. The US needs to support Egypt’s recent neoliberal reforms; from floating the Egyptian pound, to lifting subsidies and providing a leeway for greater private sector involvement in the economy. It is essential for the Trump administration to encourage US companies to step up and diversify their investments, and to use Egypt as a manufacturing hub rather than a mere export destination. This is an integral requirement for Egypt’s stability and will help address the imploding problem of youth unemployment.

As for the future role of the US in the region, many question marks remain. Will the US disengage from the Middle East and turn towards Asia to police the growing power of China, or will it opt to address its unfinished business in the region? The Arab countries in general and Egypt in particular continue to believe that their interests are best served by a consistent US presence, as outside help from the sole superpower jointly with other major and regional powers can engineer an end to the continuing civil wars in the region. Otherwise these wars could potentially last for decades and spill over to create havoc in the entire region, with serious implications to world safety and stability. However, it is essential that the US refrains from dictating domestic policies, allowing Arab countries to determine their own priorities, and acknowledge cultural differences.

In addition to the very pressing crises of terrorism, civil war and proxy conflicts, the Arab world faces other long-term challenges that include 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. While Egypt-US cooperation is key to a stable Middle East, both should find ways to avoid conflict with other global players such as Russia and rather look for areas of common interest and potential cooperation in the fight against terrorism, ending civil wars, and rebuilding shattered states.

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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