Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A political honeymoon

No one can fail to feel the positive vibes between Cairo and Washington

#Mubarak with Bush and late Saudi Arabia king Abdullah #Sadat with Carter # Mubarak with Obama
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President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Washington this week has been hailed as a major advance in Egyptian-American relations. In the words of one Egyptian diplomat “it is a high that comes after a low in the path of our partnership with the US.” Yet the same diplomat cautions against speaking about “an end to a rupture” simply because “there never was a rupture in our cooperation.”

“We had a period of down-to-the-basics but bilateral relations continued on all fronts deemed essential in both Egypt and the US.”

According to other informed Egyptian and American sources, there is a clear “positive vibe” to current bilateral ties. But they too stress there have always been positive times punctuated by moments of increased tension when it comes to relations between Cairo and Washington.

Half a century ago Egypt opted to suspend political relations with Washington as a result of US Israeli bias during the 1967 War. The diplomatic rupture continued until Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s death in 1970. Four years later, as president Anwar Al-Sadat was conducting disengagement negotiations with Israel in the wake of the 1973 War, official relations were resumed and in June 1974 Sadat offered visiting US president Richard Nixon a grand welcome in Cairo. Yet according to two retired diplomats, the years between 1967 and 1974 saw the exchange of many envoys and messages between Egypt and the US, mostly in secret.

Egyptian-US ties reached a high plateau following Sadat’s visit to Israel in November 1977 and the beginning of the peace negotiations that were eventually sealed by Sadat, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and US president Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978. This was the beginning of the so-called strategic partnership between Egypt and the US that saw Egypt become a recipient, alongside Egypt, of annual UC economic and military aid.

According to Egyptian diplomats who served in Washington or worked on managing bilateral ties with the US, the relationship at the time could be characterised as a Catholic marriage. Not that it was a simple union. Egyptian diplomats, current and retired, all for 40 years the marriage included a third party — Israel.

“It often seemed like a three-way relationship. Israel would want something or would be upset about something and the matter would immediately be raised by Washington in Egyptian-US talks,” said a former Egyptian ambassador in Washington.

This applied to bilateral Egyptian-Israeli issues and also when it came to regional developments, especially those concerning the Arab-Israeli peace process.

A former Egyptian diplomat who attended many sessions of the Egyptian sponsored Palestinian-Israeli talks in the 1990s said that every time the Israeli delegation was upset about something the US would bring the matter up with Egypt. “Sometimes it would be only hours before the foreign minister received a phone call from Washington or from the US ambassador in Cairo. And sometimes, when the Americans did not call, the minister would jokingly say they must have called the president directly,” he said.

Throughout the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, who took over from Sadat in the autumn of 1981, the US was pressing three main Israeli complaints. The Israelis wanted Mubarak to Israel, they wanted warmer peace ties, especially on the cultural and economic front, and for Cairo to push harder to promote the kind of peace deal Israel wanted to offer the Palestinians. Mubarak resisted the pressures. During his three decades as president he visited Israel just once, to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin after he was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in the autumn of 1995.

Mubarak enjoyed a good working relationship with Rabin and was hopeful that a peace deal could be hammered out between Rabin and Arafat. “Mubarak genuinely lamented the assassination of Rabin,” says a former diplomat at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. “But he was also facing pressure from Clinton who demanded all Arab partners of the US attend Rabin’s funeral.”

Otherwise, Mubarak stuck to his oft repeated condition that “once there is peace I will go.”

One permanent Israeli complaint conveyed via Washington concerned Egypt’s “reluctance” to shut down tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai. Sometimes Mubarak would sound sympathetic to the Americans and sometimes he would say that the problem was for Israel to resolve since the tunnels served only to alleviate the harsh living conditions faced by Palestinians in Gaza.

He adopted the same policy in managing American nagging for a warmer peace with Israel. Egypt already conducted what diplomats qualify as “very good security cooperation” with Israel. It also had close agricultural cooperation.

Though Mubarak did not bow to US-conveyed demands for closer cultural cooperation he did accommodate Israel in the late 1990s by signing a QIZ agreement promoting joint Israeli-Egyptian-American industrial and trade cooperation.

The impact of Israel on the bilateral Egyptian-American relations was also a factor taken into consideration during Mohamed Morsi’s brief rule.

According to a member of the Morsi administration, “Morsi and the leading political figures in the Muslim Brotherhood were aware that it would have been a mistake to rock the boat when it came to Israel.”

Essam Al-Hadad, the top foreign policy strategist during Morsi’s one-year rule, told the Americans openly “here and during meetings overseas” that Morsi was not interested in tampering with bilateral relations with Israel or in getting too involved with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

This was reassuring enough for Washington, according to the Morsi administration official.

A Western diplomat serving in Cairo at the time supports the story. It was made clear to Washington, he says, that Cairo would rather leave this matter to be attended to by Ankara, temporarily at least.

Cairo did use its ties with Hamas to secure a ceasefire following the Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip in the autumn of 2012, months after Morsi took office.

Israel might have been content with the neutral-to-accommodating role Morsi was playing but it was still unhappy at having an Islamist “regime in office in Egypt”, according to a leading foreign ministry official serving at the time.

“They always seemed sceptical as to whether or not Morsi would permanently honour the peace treaty or whether he was just waiting for the right time to turn against it.”

Western diplomats in Cairo during the months of political transition in the summer of 2013 said that Israel was delighted to see the back of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Israelis were very worried when Mubarak stepped down. Yes, they had always dealt most closely with the army and intelligence but they trusted Mubarak. They knew he was keen not to rock the boat. One former Israeli minister even referred to him as ‘a strategic treasure’,” said an Egyptian diplomat who served in the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Israelis were worried following the ouster of Mubarak, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was running the country, especially when demonstrators attacked the Israeli Embassy in Giza. They were also very worried about the political instability under Morsi. “An unstable Egypt was a risk they could not afford,” the same diplomat said.

“This is why they were relieved to see things taking a turn towards stability with the advent of the rule of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. It was a message Israel repeatedly shared with the US where it certainly had an impact.”

Despite the conspicuous absence of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo for three consecutive months Israeli officials are full of positive statements about relations with Egypt. It is an open secret that this view was shared in the summer of 2013 with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The three countries began to work together in an attempt to ease the Barack Obama administration’s concerns over changes in Egypt.

Relations between the Obama administration and the Adli Mansour and Al-Sisi teams were certainly cold — something that the Obama administration attributed to the undemocratic nature of the change in Egypt and which the Al-Sisi regime said was a result of the failure of the “moderate political Islam scheme” that Obama wanted to see in place across the Arab world.

A meeting between Obama and Al-Sisi on the fringe of the UN General Assembly in 2014 may have failed to break the ice but it signalled awareness on both sides they still had to work together. Except for some partial suspensions, economic and military aid to Egypt continued.

Under Obama the US provided Egypt with military equipment for the war against terror groups in Sinai; it cooperated with Egyptian intelligence in Syria and Libya and encouraged the IMF to agree a $12 billion loan to Egypt despite the lobbying of one leading Arab capital to block the deal.

Fall-outs between Cairo and Washington over the latter’s support the Egyptian regime’s political opponents are hardly new. In 2005 Mubarak found relations with the US entering a rocky patch over the decision of the administration of George W Bush to openly side with the regime’s critics. According to a former aid, Mubarak was convinced that the US was punishing his reluctance join in its 2003 war on Iraq.

Relations soured to the extent that Mubarak cancelled his annual spring visit to Washington for four consecutive years. There was also a partial suspension of economic and military aid and a spike in criticisms of the internal political situation in Egypt voiced in the US Congress. Yet none of this did much harm to the overall volume of bilateral relations — economic, political and security wise.

Cairo saw the election of Obama as a possible new beginning. Mubarak, who was happy to see the neocons gone in Washington, offered the newly elected US president an exceptionally warm welcome when he visited Cairo in June 2009. A couple of months later Obama met Mubarak at the Oval Office. The two leaders pledged to work for the improvement of the bilateral relations yet less than two years later Obama turned down a joint Saudi-UAE-Israeli request to support Mubarak in the face of the January 2011 Revolution.

A US diplomat who was in Cairo at the time argues Washington could not have supported Mubarak given the extent of the uprising against him, one supported by the most powerful of state institutions, the army.

Following Mubarak’s removal the US promised support for Egypt in its pursuit of democracy. But the honeymoon was short lived.

Today, Egypt and the US appear to be embarking on a new honeymoon. Trump and Al-Sisi said this week that they are committed to regional security, the defeat of political Islam and an end to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. Diplomats in Cairo and Washington expect their agreement over such key goals will take relations between the two capitals to a far more profound level of partnership.

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