Monday,18 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Monday,18 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sisi, Trump in Washington

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to meet his US counterpart Donald Trump on his first official visit to the White House next Tuesday. The visit is expected to turn a new leaf in Egyptian-US relations, injecting fresh warmth following the cool-to-tepid approach the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, took towards Cairo after the 30 June 2013 Revolution. But in order to derive the optimum benefit from this visit and put this bilateral relationship back on its natural track it is important to bear in mind a number of important points.

Just as was the case with the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Cairo, everything should be clear in advance of Al-Sisi’s trip to Washington. The issues to be discussed should be thoroughly worked out beforehand, in terms of substance, the degrees of prudence and flexibility that should be brought to bear in view of the magnitude of current regional and international challenges, and Egypt’s readiness and ability to play effective roles in managing those issues in its capacity as an influential regional power and as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

In our opinion, foremost among the issues that the president should focus on in that visit is the resumption of joint Egyptian-US military manoeuvres, which the Obama administration suspended in 2013 in protest at the break-up of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins. Were it not for that administration’s mounting concern over the terrorist threat in Sinai, especially after Islamist extremist groups there declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, as well as Egypt’s decision to turn to Russia and France for arms acquisitions, that administration would not have softened its stance towards Egypt and permitted the resumption of the supply of spare parts for Egypt’s Apache helicopters crucial to the fight against terrorism in Sinai.

Especially now following the displacement of Coptic families from Arish due to the threat of terrorist groups, which persists despite the succession of debilitating blows delivered by the Egyptian Armed Forces against takfiri strongholds, Washington should realise the need to furnish Egypt with all types of support needed in order to defeat terrorism. It is also time for Egypt to receive more solid international backing in this war, a point that President Al-Sisi explained to President Trump in a recent telephone call in which Al-Sisi stressed that Egypt has been fighting this war alone for more than 40 months.

This challenge has been compounded by economic difficulties and all the more so with the stringent reform measures Cairo has instituted recently. Therefore, economic assistance, increasing US investments in Egypt and ways that Washington could use its influence to help Egypt obtain more loans from international donor agencies are also crucial discussion points. The floating of the Egyptian pound, the decreasing of subsidies on fuel, electricity and other government services, and rising rates of unemployment and inflation have combined to drive up public pressure on the government. Washington must surely realise that Egypt is too important strategically in connection with many regional issues and concerns to leave alone and unaided in the face of all these challenges.

It should be mentioned in this context that, in view of Trump’s economic background, when discussing economic aid and increasing the flow of investment in Egypt, it is important to stress Egypt’s position as a major gateway to the whole African market. Investing in Egypt offers the advantage of being able to benefit from agreements that offer access to huge numbers of consumers in African and Arab markets. In this framework, Egypt could serve as a major base for manufacturing or assembling US products that could then be exported to African and Asian markets. Egypt’s strategic location at the intersection between three regions (the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa) and its large resources in highly qualified and inexpensive manpower make it ideal for this purpose.

Another item on the agenda would be Iran, especially in light of Trump’s hostile approach to that country and the drive to forge a unified front of Arab Sunni states to counter mounting Iranian influence in the Gulf, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, on the one hand, and on the other, Egypt’s moves to open channels of dialogue with Iran in order to promote diplomatic solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts (efforts that fall within the framework of Egypt’s drive to boost its regional influence) and to open channels of communication with Baghdad (which to some extent pass through Tehran) in order to obtain Iraqi oil when Riyadh stopped its oil flows to Egypt. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that Egypt can not accept calls (or bow to pressure) to reconcile with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is capitalising on Saudi-Turkish rapprochement and Ankara’s hostility towards Egypt. In light of the foregoing considerations, the Iranian question in its various dimensions, and with its implications for the future of the region, is an important focal point for both Al-Sisi and Trump.

Certainly the Syrian question will also be on the agenda, as it should be in view of Egypt’s established stance on that crisis and the means to resolve it. Egypt supports the preservation of the territorial unity and integrity of Syria and it believes that a diplomatic solution is the only way to promote change in that country, especially after the many years that have proven to the world that the military solution has not only failed to promote constructive change but has created an environment conducive to extremism, the proliferation of terrorist groups and the intervention of parties who are not concerned by the welfare of the Syrian people.

On a final note, Egyptian diplomacy should realise that Trump does not possess a magic wand that will put Egyptian-US relations back on course without Cairo doing its part. Egypt will need to reciprocate Washington’s efforts by, for example, persuading Congress of Cairo’s determination to promote further political and economic reforms. This is clearly a task that Trump cannot perform on his own, particularly given that a group in the Congress, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, objects to the restrictions Egypt imposes on NGOs, the alleged failure to take proper steps to protect Egyptian Christians, and alleged backsliding on laws that worked to promote and safeguard women’s rights. Egypt will need to address these concerns if there is a serious desire to propel Egyptian-US relations forward.

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