There have been numerous visits exchanged between Egyptian and American heads of state over the past four decades, but the visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Washington on 3 April in reply to US President Donald Trump’s invitation has a deeper significance this time round.
This upcoming visit will be the first official visit for Al-Sisi to the United States on an invitation from his American counterpart. Al-Sisi has already visited the United States twice as Egypt’s president to attend UN General Assembly meetings in New York.
The United States may have lost a significant portion of its standing in the Middle East after losing the support of Egypt and some of the Gulf states during the turbulent post-Arab Spring period. As former US president Barack Obama’s political credo of “leading from behind” was applied in the Middle East conflict it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy and left the United States far behind in many areas.
A political void is always filled by other powers, and accordingly Russia, France, the United Kingdom along with other European Union states such as Germany and Italy became more involved politically, militarily and economically in the Middle East.
The Obama administration’s ventures in Syria, Libya and Iraq, as well as its support for Islamist rebels and jihadists under the title of the “armed opposition” in these countries, distanced it from the Egyptian administration. Relations with the United States were at an all-time low as a result, especially in Obama’s second term. In August 2013, Obama froze military ties between the US and Egypt and ended the biennial joint military exercise Operation Bright Star that takes place in Egypt.
This exercise was one of the largest of its kind in the world, and for many years dozens of NATO and non-NATO countries participated with personnel and monitors in this important military event. As the war on terror then ignited against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration appeared to be taking the side of the terrorists by downplaying the violence of the Brotherhood that left thousands of people killed in Egypt after June 2013.
Al-Sisi has also been treated unfairly by the US media since June 2013, which has sometimes blindly parroted the lies of Brotherhood propaganda, financed mainly by Islamist regimes in Qatar and Turkey, against the Egyptian 30 June Revolution. For over three years, the US media has been painting a negative picture of the situation in Egypt, corresponding to the position of the Obama administration which saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a possible partner in Egypt and the region.
A NEW BEGINNING: During his meeting with Trump, Al-Sisi is expected to make the case for the US government listing the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate organisations as terrorist groups, a step which would in itself help to end global terrorism.
Once the US lists the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, it will oblige its European allies to do the same, thus rendering the group a pariah in the West. This step will be a monumental one in defeating the likes of the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda, which are the offspring of the Brotherhood. Both Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Ayman Al-Zawahri, leaders of IS and Al-Qaeda, respectively, were active members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Trump, Al-Sisi’s visit may serve many purposes, among them proving that his administration is not bigoted against Muslims, Arabs or Middle Easterners when the leader of the largest Middle Eastern nation is officially hosted by the White House. Moreover, it will be an attempt to regain lost ground in the Middle East as Egypt with its important military can serve as a key ally in combating IS and Al-Qaeda. Moreover, it might help curb some of the influence France and Russia have gained in the region, thus creating investment and export opportunities for American companies as per Trump’s election campaign vows.
Both the US and Egyptian presidents suffer from internal problems that could be manifested in economic struggles for Al-Sisi along with the ongoing war on terror against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, while Trump has his own problems, including internal conflicts with the US intelligence agencies, media and his traditional opponents in the Democratic and Republican parties. Both presidents require the other’s assistance in delivering political gains that could persuade voters that they are moving in the right direction.
Despite Trump’s leanings towards a more isolationist foreign policy for the United States, especially when it concerns the Middle East, there are certain issues that no American president can afford to ignore as they concern the political hegemony of the US worldwide. One of them is the US presence in the Middle East and fighting terrorism and stabilising the region. For the past two decades, the United States has not been an element of stabilisation in the region, and in fact has been quite the opposite. Trump vowed during his presidential campaign to reverse such policies, which according to him have cost the US over $6 trillion, or enough to “rebuild” the US twice over.
Though the numbers could be less than this, already over $1.6 trillion has been spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone. Trump is keen to cut these loses through a new approach to be discussed with the Egyptian president.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Middle East peace process have been the elephant in the room in Egyptian-American meetings over the past four decades. With the situation now more complex than at any time in recent decades, Trump and Al-Sisi may feel compelled to come up with a new path towards a permanent peace treaty between Israel and its Arab neighbours that, though distant, may not be impossible given the sacrifices of both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities.
The recent meeting between Al-Sisi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signified that the frozen peace process in the Middle East will be a key topic during the Egyptian-American negotiations.
Trump and Al-Sisi are both hardliners on fighting terrorism. Both presidents have been subjected to vicious propaganda campaigns by the media, and this is another common denominator. While criticisms of politicians are normal practice for a free media, many of these campaigns have been subjective and have used ad hominem attacks.
Moreover, during his successful campaign for the presidency Trump met and had discussions with only one acting president, namely Al-Sisi during his visit to New York to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly. At Trump’s request, Al-Sisi met with the then Republican Party candidate, who praised the Egyptian president’s achievements in the war on terror. He also vowed that there would be closer ties with Egypt should he become president.
Al-Sisi is an admirer of Trump’s stance on the war on terror, as he has himself suffered from the cataclysmic effects of Obama’s Middle East policies on Egypt and the region. Political circles in both countries now believe that it is time to turn that page and start a fresh one. Several delegations from the US Senate and from US military and trade sectors have recently visited Egypt in parallel to visits by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to Washington to prepare for Al-Sisi’s visit.
MILITARY COOPERATION: As a result of the Obama administration’s objections to the dispersal of the armed encampments of the Muslim Brotherhood in the heart of Cairo in August 2013, the US issued a temporary ban on weapon supplies to Egypt.
In response, the Egyptian military adopted a policy of expanding the diversity of its foreign weapons purchases and ceased its reliance on US military equipment despite the annual $1.3 billion in US aid to Egypt in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords.
During the period from August 2013 to today, Egypt has purchased over $12 billion of armaments that include cutting-edge technology such as French Rafale and Russian Mig35 fighters along with K-52 helicopters to be used on newly purchased state-of-the-art Mistral helicopter carriers. Further weapon systems and naval pieces have been purchased from France, Germany, China and Russia as part of a rearmament programme.
These purchases by the Egyptian military have led the arms industry in the United States to demand the revision of Washington’s policies. More importantly, Russian-Egyptian ties were reinvigorated during the same period in ways unseen since the 1960s, and this has worried Washington politicians and the US arms industry since it has seemed to mean that the US is in danger of losing a key ally to its Russian arch-rival.
Traditionally, military cooperation between the United States and Egypt has rivalled if not surpassed some US relations with some NATO members. However, neither country can rely entirely on military and security cooperation to keep relations strong, since Egypt has already taken the decision to diversify its weapons purchases.
Moreover, it is important to establish Egyptian-American relations on strong foundations and beyond the influence of individual political leaders or heads of state. Presidents may come and go, but nations stay. Relations between two great nations should not be dependent on who is in charge in Cairo or Washington, but should be set on secure foundations that transcend the decisions of any individual Egyptian or American president.
This may prove hard to accomplish at the beginning, but it is attainable, especially if the lessons from the deteriorating relations during the Obama administration act as a guiding light for the importance of creating sustainable relations. Military relations between the US and Egypt can serve as the foundations for a secure future, but expanding trade and cultural relations are also key to bringing the two nations closer together.
The Egyptian-American community in the United States, over 250,000 strong, is another strong tie between the two nations. Egyptian expatriates and Egyptian-Americans are among the most highly educated and best-paid professionals in the United States in all areas of life, including the media, science, business, medicine, and engineering. Similarly, there are thousands of Americans living in Egypt, reaching some 50,000 in 2011. These people work as skilled professionals and experts in many fields.
Furthermore, both countries boast deep cultures, with the ancient Egyptian culture fascinating the Americans and the Egyptians being fascinated by American cultural products such as films, literature, and music. Accordingly, the ties between the two nations are stronger than the politics that may separate them.
The challenge facing Trump is to restore the US presence in the region and maintain its interests in the Middle East while standing by his political motto of non-interventionism, one of the elements that led a majority of Americans to vote for him. On the other hand, Al-Sisi’s key challenge is to restore Egyptian-American relations to pre-June 2013 Revolution levels, while maintaining the hard-gained political independence for which Egyptians have paid a hefty price.
Only time will tell if the two presidents are able to reach these goals.
The writer is a political analyst, writer and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.