US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to Egypt on 20 April focused on bilateral military cooperation. It is the first visit to Egypt by a senior US official since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s trip to Washington two weeks ago. In addition to meeting with Donald Trump in Washington, Al-Sisi also visited the Pentagon and Congress and met with the chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee.
Mattis’ visit comes as part of a tour of African and Middle Eastern countries. As such it underscores Egypt’s regional role in the context of military and security developments and the Trump administration’s strategic outlook on the Middle East, a message clearly conveyed by the statement on the Pentagon’s official website: “On April 20, the secretary travels to Egypt to discuss regional security issues and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Cairo’s Unknown Soldier Memorial in honor of fallen Egyptian soldiers.”
The statement echoed the messages conveyed during Trump and Al-Sisi’s press conference at the White House, during which Trump indicated his desire to raise military relations between Washington and Cairo to an unprecedented level.
General Chief-of-Staff Hisham Al-Halabi, advisor at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Ahram Weekly “the Egyptians and Americans agree on a number of issues connected with their security and military relations, especially with regard to the fight against terrorism in the region. It is well known that Cairo is more serious in its handling of this issue than other countries in the region.”
Al-Halabi described Mattis’ regional tour as an “actualising and exploratory” visit. With respect to Egypt, he believes its purpose is to promote closer relations in conventional areas, such as arms supplies and increasing levels of US military aid to Egypt.
“As we know, the Pentagon attaches great significance to Egypt in the area of armaments and did so even during the decline in bilateral relationship that occurred under the previous administration following the 30 June Revolution and the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule.”
Al-Halabi also suggested the visit would focus on joint training exercises.
“They are important to both sides. The US is clearly interested in them, not least because Cairo is a conduit for the transfer of military expertise to the Gulf and other countries in the region.”
This tour and a previous visit by Mattis to the UAE in February underline the high priority Washington accords to the war against terrorism in Iraq and Syria. The shift towards increased use of US military force, signalled by the US bombing of the Shayrat Airbase in Syria, begs the question of how this will impact on Cairo’s own position vis-à-vis Syria.
“The Egyptian position on Syria is clear,” says Al-Halabi. “Cairo prioritises political solutions in dealing with the Syrian crisis. It rejects regime change by force on the grounds that ousting the Al-Assad regime will not promote political consensus. Since there is no agreement over a possible replacement it will only augment the anarchy in Syria.”
But whatever differences exist between Cairo and Washington over Syria, Al-Halabi believes “there are signs of a closer meeting of minds at present.”
Amr Abdel-Ati, an International Politics journal specialist in US affairs, told the Weekly intelligence cooperation between the two countries was likely to take priority in Mattis’ talks with Egyptian officials.
“Other issues, including arms supplies, will be discussed but intelligence cooperation lies at the core of counter-terrorism.”
It is too early, argues Abdel-Ati, to be overly optimistic about the prospects for closer bilateral military relations which he cautions “will be contingent on the roles the US administration envisions playing in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and on what Washington expects from Cairo and what Cairo will offer within this framework.”
The US secretary of defense was due to head to Tel Aviv following his Cairo stopover where, says Israeli affairs expert Said Okasha, the political settlement process will be a focal issue.
“The settlement process clearly needs security underpinning, which is why the US secretary of defense is needed. The region is also teeming with security issues of concern to the US which have a bearing on questions related to Israel.”
“With regard to the settlement process the US will tell Israel its settlement activity in the occupied territories is an obstacle to any political solution and that any solution will require some form of regional protection backed by the US. This is consistent with the position already stated by Trump, that Washington will not impose a solution but will protect any solution that regional stakeholders, including Cairo, agree on.”