Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Relationship re-boot

Mohamed Abdel-Baky ponders the future of Egyptian-US relations following President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s warm reception at the White House

photo: Mohamed Samaha
photo: Mohamed Samaha

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi used his five-day visit to Washington to establish channels of communication with the key figures and institutions involved in US foreign policy-making. Yet despite Al-Sisi’s success in opening such channels more work will be needed to overcome the rifts that occurred during more than 13 years of tension between Egypt and the US.

The rifts date back to June 2005 when former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice used a speech at the American University in Cairo to call for regime changes in the Middle East. They expanded to include suspicion in Cairo over Washington’s actions under the rubric of democracy promotion to engulf many issues of mutual interest including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran’s nuclear programme, the rebuilding of post-invasion Iraq and the ongoing war in Syria.

Egyptian and American officials who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly in Washington during Al-Sisi’s visit say that the Egyptian president’s presence in the US capital marks the beginning of the re-booting of US-Egyptian ties. The re-set button has been pressed, they say, and it must now be followed by the comprehensive negotiations needed to build the kind of strategic partnership capable of tackling the new reality in Egypt and across the Middle East.

“Building a new strategic partnership with Egypt should not be conditional on who is in the White House and who rules Egypt. This is a relationship between the world’s major power and the most important country in the Middle East region,” said a senior American diplomat.  

“What the two leaders did this week means that they understand very well they are working for the future, not just for short-term gains.”

Tensions between Cairo and Washington have tended to focus on three main issues. Washington’s espousal of human rights and democratic reforms in Egypt, particularly under the Obama administration, was viewed in Cairo as unacceptable interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs. It is an issue that is once again coming to the fore as a debate in Washington begins over the possible designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.  Events in Syria widened the gap between Washington and Cairo, and Egyptian officials have openly expressed their concern about the extremist groups that the US has supported in their battle with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Achieving peace between Israel and Palestine has been a long-standing bone of contention and is likely to remain so given recent remarks made by the US administration about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.   

“This visit represents an important transformation in the relationship. There is no question the way Trump looks at Al-Sisi and Egypt is different from the way Barack Obama’s administration did,” said Dennis Ross, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director at the National Security Council.

“There is a deep belief among Trump administration officials that the relationship with Egypt is a fundamental pillar of US interests in the Middle East region. Settling relations with Egypt is clearly a top priority for the Trump team. The US president invited Al-Sisi in the White House after being in office for just a few months. This signals the importance of Egypt to the Trump team.”

The Trump administration, says Ross, will focus on working with Egypt and other countries in the region to restore stability, and will coordinate closely on regional issues including curtailing growing Iranian influence, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

Yet despite the overlap in interests, many commentators are sceptical about the ability of the new American administration to turn a completely new page in bilateral ties with Egypt.

“My understanding is the Trump administration has already started to deal with Egypt through a set of fixed priorities. The relationship is being recalibrated to create a new strategic partnership vis-à-vis countering terrorism which will include using all tools, not just the military. It is also working steadily to create a new framework to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and frameworks that could facilitate cooperation on the social, political and economic development of Egypt,” says Walid Faras, former Middle East advisor to Trump.

Faras argues that the Trump administration fully understands that a country of Egypt’s importance cannot be treated with “arrogance”.

The White House is aware that “Egyptian interests must be respected and taken into consideration,” he says.

Failure to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation any time soon is not expected to become a bone of tension between Cairo and Washington. Indeed, officials within Egyptian delegation to the US told the Weekly that Cairo expects the issue to be placed on hold for the time being.

“We appreciate that designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation concerns US interests and we know Washington has to study the impact of taking such a step. What we have done is explain the situation in Egypt and expose the Muslim Brotherhood and the crimes it has committed,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukri.

In June US Senator Ted Cruz proposed a bill designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The bill is unlikely to pass since it falls short of providing the comprehensive evidence — proof that the group in question poses a direct threat to US national security — needed before such a designation is approved. And according to US media reports, the CIA has submitted a memo to the president advising him not to take such step as it could “fuel extremism” and “damage relations with US’s allies”.

Congressmen Robert Pittenger told the Weekly that 45 members had already pledged to support the bill but it will take much more time, and consultations on a host of tracks, before the issue is resolved.

“Within the house there is a lot of support for Egypt’s fight against terrorism in Sinai and for Egyptian efforts to promote stability in Libya. We are working on different tracks to support Egypt and serve US interests and national security,” Pittenger said.  

Pittenger visited Egypt and met with Al-Sisi in January. During the meeting he proposed that the US Office of Technical Assistance within the Treasury Department should work with the Egyptian government to help Cairo track the way terrorism is being financed.

“In order to defeat the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups the world needs strong American leadership which is why I was pleased to facilitate assistance to Egypt through the Treasury Department,” Pittenger said at the time.

“Such assistance is crucial in enabling Egypt to collaborate with the US and our partners in tracking terrorist financing.”

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