President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s first visit to the White House for talks with his US counterpart Donald Trump earlier this month have been described as both strategic and successful. Both sides came to the negotiating table with a clear agenda and explicit demands on how to “reboot” their vital and strategic bilateral relationship, which had hit a low mark under the former Obama administration.
Trump set a very upbeat tone at the outset of the visit. “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President Al-Sisi,” he said with the Egyptian president sitting beside him in the Oval Office. He repeated these sentiments in a closed meeting, in an expanded session and at a working lunch, reaffirming his administration’s support for Egypt and the Egyptian people in the course of talks on issues ranging from the economy to the fight against terrorism.
Trump also stressed his government’s support for Egypt in its regional role in the Middle East and Africa. “We know the positive role it plays in solving problems, and we know that it is a country that is acceptable to all sides when it intervenes to resolve problems in peaceful ways,” he said.
The talks themselves “exceeded expectations” and were “more than outstanding”, in the words of Egyptian and American officials. The two sides discussed political, military and economic issues. Summing up his administration’s reasons for supporting Egypt in these areas, Trump said that “we want Egypt to be secure, stable and prosperous, for the sake of the security and stability of the region and of the US and the world.”
THE REGIONAL DIMENSION: In the political track of the talks, the Egyptian side presented its outlook on the current situation in the Middle East with a particular focus on security.
It primarily addressed conditions in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq with an eye to establishing areas of common ground in the Egyptian-US perspective on these countries where Egypt seeks to promote peace, stability and security. For example, Egypt emphasised that the current situation in Libya posed a direct threat to Egyptian national security and outlined its ideas on how the US could contribute to restoring stability in that country through diplomatic efforts.
In the Egyptian view, by refraining from any form of military intervention the US and the EU will be better able to support legitimacy in Libya. It is also important to communicate with all the Libyan parties, including the Council of State in Tripoli, the House of Representatives, and the Libyan army, in order to promote solutions that will enable legitimate government institutions to assert their control over the country as a whole and manage its affairs effectively, helping Libya to eliminate the terrorist groups operating on its territory.
The US could help by promoting the release of Libyan assets abroad and by lifting the international ban on exporting weapons to Libya. The Egyptian side noted that Libya had become an operational centre for five categories of extremists: Libyan Islamic State (IS) group operatives; extremist elements fleeing from Iraq; their Syrian counterparts; operatives from Boko Haram; and extremists from Afghanistan who, unable to return to their own country, have been able to infiltrate Libya due to the deterioration in security and the lack of sufficient international attention to the situation in the country.
Certain developments further away may not seem to encroach so directly on Egyptian national security, but they may nevertheless have a significant impact on it. This is the case with the danger that Iran poses to the region, especially after former US president Barack Obama signed the nuclear agreement with Tehran that together with the gradual lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of Iranian assets has upset the balance of forces in the Middle East and boosted Iran’s ability to destabilise the region through the support it gives to terrorist organisations in conflict zones in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
Egypt believes that the US in its capacity as a superpower has the ability to compel Iran to change its behaviour. In this regard, there were reports that the US favoured the idea of a joint Arab force, hosted by Egypt, in order to counter Iranian influence in the region.
The concept would be modelled along the lines of NATO, meaning that any attack against one of the members of this coalition would be regarded as an attack against all its members. The proposed force would initially consist of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, but could expand to include other Arab states. The US would offer military and intelligence support and intelligence exchange with Israel.
With regard to US support for countries in the region in their fight against terrorism, Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that Egypt asked Washington to dedicate its efforts to drying up the sources of terrorism emanating from Qatar and Turkey, as well as Iran.
Cairo also stressed the need to persuade the UK to make its position clear on the Muslim Brotherhood. The UK harbours many Muslim Brotherhood members who use the freedoms there to organise underground activities in the region and to channel money through British banks to fund these activities. While the US administration sympathises with the Egyptian point of view, it is uncertain whether it will officially designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, thereby setting in motion measures to confiscate the organisation’s assets and pursue its members. The subject is still being studied in the White House and Congress.
The Weekly also learned that Trump expressed his disapproval of the former Obama administration’s policies towards Egypt, and specifically of the Obama administration’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the way it attempted to pressure Egypt by restricting access to the arms needed for the fight against terrorism.
In his conversations with US officials, his remarks to the US media and his talks with the Pentagon and Congressional committees, Al-Sisi focused primarily on the question of terrorism and the situation in Sinai. Together with aides from the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council, he outlined the actions Egypt has been taking to fight terrorism. He stressed that this could not be eliminated by military and security means alone, and that an array of economic, social, cultural and ideological mechanisms needed to be brought to bear, mentioning in particular the drive to reform religious discourse.
Trump and his aides praised Egypt’s efforts, with Trump saying that Egypt was “on the right track” and that the US “backed it 100 per cent” in the war on terrorism. Al-Sisi stressed that a proper appreciation of human rights meant that the victims of terrorism and their families had rights that needed to be upheld. Trump agreed.
In response to Al-Sisi’s remarks regarding countries that support terrorist organisations by furnishing them with arms and funds, Trump stressed the need to fight all terrorist groups without exception and to deal firmly with countries that foster or support terrorism.
Rounding out the political track of the talks, the two sides discussed the Palestinian question, the most important single issue in the Middle East and a central concern for all Arab people. Before travelling to Washington, Al-Sisi had met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, using this as an opportunity to agree on a common vision of how to work towards a just and lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict by means of a new US-sponsored roadmap binding on all the parties.
Al-Sisi made encouraging remarks in this regard when he spoke of an initiative to hold a conference or meeting in Washington, sponsored by Trump, that would bring together all the parties with a view to finding a radical solution to the Palestinian question.
According to Weekly sources, the closed meeting between Al-Sisi and Trump broached the sensitive issue of moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The issue had already been the subject of a frank exchange of views during the Egyptian foreign minister’s three recent meetings in Washington.
According to the sources, Al-Sisi expressed his position on the matter, holding that it was important not to pre-empt the results of negotiations and not to complicate matters further than they already were at this stage. Trump expressed his appreciation of this point of view.
THE MILITARY DIMENSION: Available details on the military track of the talks are scarce in view of their confidentiality. However, there are broad outlines that shed light on the situation.
Egypt currently receives military aid from the US to the tune of $1.3 billion a year under one of the provisions of the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty in accordance with which Israel also receives $3 billion in military aid. Egypt depends heavily on this aid for its weapons maintenance and development programmes, which is why Obama had frozen this aid for three years as a way of pressuring Cairo.
Writing in Al-Ahram recently, General Samir Farag stated that Egypt would ask for an increase in the amount of US military aid, since the current level was set in accordance with 1979 prices. At that time, a US-made C-130 transport plane cost $10 million, whereas now it cost 10 times that amount, Farag said. Naturally, Egypt could not keep pace with such exponential price increases with a level of military aid set decades ago, and this hampered its ability to meet its military requirements in addressing the situation in the region.
Farag said that Egypt should ask to revive the “cash-flow financing” system that Obama had abolished in order to restrict it militarily. The system, instituted under the Peace Treaty, offers both Egypt and Israel the advantage of being able to purchase military equipment under forward contracts. For Egypt, this facilitates the acquisition of new weapons and equipment and, more importantly, the most modern and sophisticated armament systems and especially those needed to enhance border security in all strategic directions.
Not only did Obama freeze military aid to Egypt for three years, but when he reinstated it in April 2015 to take effect in 2018 it came with a number of conditions. The aid had to be allocated for four purposes only: counter-terrorism, border security, Sinai security and maritime security. During the meeting between Al-Sisi and Trump, the Egyptian side asked for a review of these conditions.
Egypt also underscored the importance of enhancing information and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, especially given the US’ vast expertise and capabilities in this domain. In the light of successful experience in the co-production of the M1A1 Abrams tank, a state-of-the-art MBT (main battle tank) in the military arsenal, Egypt called for closer cooperation in military manufacturing.
Obama also suspended the “Bright Star” joint US-Egypt military manoeuvres in spite of their importance to the participating forces. The Egyptian and American presidents in Washington last week agreed that the two sides would continue to explore resuming these exercises during the US secretary of defense’s visit to Egypt later this month, as well as during the subsequent visits of the head of US Central Command.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the US will furnish Egypt with weapons that it has heretofore banned from exporting to Egypt, such as long-range cruise missiles and Aim-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), included by former US president George W Bush on the list of weapons that the US would not export to Egypt.
In addition, it has been rumoured that Washington has agreed to upgrade Egypt’s F-16s aircraft to “Viper” class, the latest evolution of the F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter aircraft which is equipped with the AN/APG-83 fire control radar, upgraded electronic warfare equipment and modern threat-warning systems.
THE ECONOMIC TRACK: This track is as important as the other two if the economy is thought of as the engine of development and the avenue to progress, self-sufficiency and independence.
In his meeting in Washington, Al-Sisi spoke frankly with his American counterpart on the domestic situation in Egypt and the impacts of the economic reform measures that the government has carried out such as the floating of the Egyptian pound and the phased lifting of fuel and electricity subsidies.
He praised the Egyptian people for their patience in enduring these measures for the sake of their country’s future and for their sacrifices in the war against terrorism. Trump for his part remarked on the courageousness of the Egyptian decisions which, he said, were on the right track.
Trump was also positive on helping to promote US investment in Egypt. He said that he was ready to work with Egypt to smooth the way for major US firms to obtain credit in order to invest in the country. He was also keen to increase the volume of bilateral trade, especially in machinery and equipment.
Al-Sisi invited ministers accompanying him on the trip to explain the investment opportunities in Egypt, the incentives being offered to investors, and the reforms that were being introduced into the legal infrastructure affecting investment and trade. Members of the delegation also discussed promising areas for cooperation, such as transportation, electricity, infrastructure and information technology. They underscored the large market that Egypt has to offer, as well as its strategic location at the intersection of three continents.
Trump expressed his interest in the development of the Egyptian economy and job creation for the Egyptian people, which, he said, would bolster stability in Egypt and hence stability in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. It was agreed that Egyptian Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr and US Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell would coordinate on promoting US investment in Egypt.
In addition to the military assistance to Egypt, the US has also committed itself under the Camp David Peace Treaty to giving $800 million in economic aid to Egypt, which brings the total amount of US aid up to $2.1 billion. However, since the end of the Cold War, the US has gradually cut back its international aid programmes. This has affected its economic aid to Egypt, which had shrunk to just over $200 million in 2010. Egypt hopes that this can be brought up to its former level, or at least that it can be significantly increased to a level commensurate to global economic change.
According to unconfirmed leaks, Egypt asked for a long-term, low interest, facilitated development loan in order to stimulate the economic cycle until the economy had recovered its equilibrium and growth rates had increased.
Farag believes that Egypt also asked the US to furnish a special economic zone in the Suez Canal Zone such as those created for both China and Russia. Such zones can help boost employment and improve the balance of trade, especially given special tax exemptions and a favourable investment climate for US firms. Higher levels of direct foreign investment are an important key to economic growth, the reduction of unemployment, and the transfer of much-needed expertise in the automotive industry, pharmaceuticals and other important economic sectors.
The prospects look promising in all three areas, especially now that the US sees Egypt as an “ally”, in Trump’s words, after long having regarded it as just a “partner”. But the question remains of what the US wants from Egypt.
In spite of the change in Washington from a Democratic to a Republican Party administration and as good as the “chemistry” may be between Al-Sisi and Trump, the US does not do anything for free. Perhaps the best brief answer to this question is that Washington wants Cairo to remain its ally in the region as the world is taking on a new shape, especially given Russia’s rapid and increasing re-involvement in the region (in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Libya and Algeria), the growing French and British involvement in the Gulf, and China’s and India’s energetic involvement in Africa.
Common sense tells us that we should work to ensure that Egypt remains a US ally, as opposed to a dependency, by retaining good relations with the Russians, French, Chinese, Indians and Germans alongside strategic relations with the Americans.