Time and experience have proven that Egypt is, by far, the most important strategic partner for the United States in the most complicated and misunderstood region of the Middle East. Although it took the new U.S. Administration of President Joseph Biden more than five months, and a short exchange of missile attacks between Israel and Hamas, to acknowledge this fact; it seems that the relationship between the two old bodies is, finally, witnessing a quantum leap back on the right track. On November 8-9, the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue was resumed after years of freeze, promising a whole new phase in the century-old relationship between the two countries. However, judging from the history of the relationship, we have to ask about how long this euphoric momentum is expected to last before the unresolved disagreements between the two states surface to the top, once again.
Next year, we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties between Egypt and the United States. Albeit, some historians trace the start of the relationship between Egypt and the United States back to the 19th century, when American doctors were allowed access to Egypt to help wounded Sudanese soldiers, in 1823. Despite this long history, the relationship between the two allies has never been easy or smooth. It is a perfect embodiment of the tough love relationship. Although the two countries admit that they cannot do without each other, there have always been strong disagreements in beliefs and perceptions between the consecutive Egyptian and American leaders, that made it hard for their short intervals of cooperation to yield any tangible effects for the long-term. Meanwhile, the long periods of coldness and distance left unremovable bruises on each side, though with variant degrees of pain.
Right now, we are witnessing an up moment in the US-Egypt affairs. It should be appropriately utilized to make the future of US-Egypt relationship steadier and more sustainable, by overcoming the up and down, or hot and cold, pattern of the affair.
Last week, in Washington, a new round of the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue was successfully held under the leadership of the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The conversation, which lasted for two days, between the two senior diplomatic delegations covered bilateral relations, as well as regional challenges of common interest. “Egypt is a vital partner for the United States. We are committed to strengthening the forty-years of US-Egypt partnership;” noted the U.S. State Department’s press release. At the conclusion of the dialogue, the two countries issued a joint statement affirming “the importance of the US-Egypt strategic partnership and identified areas in which to deepen bilateral and regional cooperation, including economic and commercial affairs, education, cultural issues, consular affairs, human rights, justice and law enforcement, and defense and security. They also agreed on the importance of holding this dialogue on a regular basis.”
This is the first round of the Egyptian-American strategic talks to be held under the new Biden Administration. Also, this is the first actual dialogue between the two allies since the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions, that led to two regime changes in less than three years, in Egypt. The last episode of the US-Egypt strategic dialogue, which was held in 2015, cannot be counted. It took place at a time of heated tensions between the U.S. Administration of President Obama and the then new Egyptian Presidency of El-Sisi. The political and security turmoil that overwhelmed Egypt at that time made it hard for any plans to be appropriately configured or concretely applied.
However, this time, Egypt is participating in the strategic dialogue with the United States as an established strong state that can really make a change happen in the region. Moreover, it seems that the Biden Administration’s foreign policy towards Egypt and other countries in the region is more pragmatic and understanding than what was expected from him, earlier.
Bilaterally: Human Rights and Military Affairs
Despite the many political and diplomatic disagreements between Egypt and the United States, the military cooperation between the Pentagon and the Egyptian Armed Forces has been hardly shaken. On the contrary, this long-established bond between the two militaries has played a tremendous role in controlling the outcomes of critical moments of turmoil for Egypt and the Middle East. Most prominent examples on this are the Gulf war in 1991 and the Arab Spring aftermath in 2011.
The US-Egypt strategic cooperation, in the defense arena, started in the second half of the 1970s, when President Anwar Sadat decided to restore relations with the United States, which his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser had severed in favor to his communist allies in the Soviet Union. Then, in the 1980s, the US-Egypt military relationship moved to a completely new level as the U.S. started to provide training and financial assistance to the Egyptian military, per the provisions of the Peace Accord signed between Egypt and Israel, in 1979.
One benchmark of the strong military relationship between the two countries is the multinational military exercise “The Bright Star,” which has been convened on annual bases, since 1981, on the Egyptian soil and under the American supervision. In September, the United States and Egypt organized the biggest military exercises in the history of “Operation Bright Star” at Egypt’s Mohamed Naguib Military Base, by including 21 participating countries from all over the world.
Nevertheless, this strong US-Egypt military affair has been inappropriately used, more than once, to pressure the Egyptian state to improve its human rights record. Unfortunately, the current U.S. Administration is still insisting on playing the same risky game with Egypt, although it proved to be harmful for both sides in the past. In September, Politico magazine mentioned that the Biden Administration is looking into upholding ten per cent (about US$ 130 million out of 1.3 billion) of the military aid due to Egypt, in order to pressure the Egyptian state to improve performance on guaranteeing and respecting human rights. US State Department officials told the Washington-based magazine that the withheld amount may be available in future fiscal years if Egypt succeed in improving its human rights record.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Administration of President Biden has not learnt from the mistakes of former administration and is not willing to change the flawed policy of applying economic and political pressures, through cutting or freezing the military aid, to push Egypt to improve human rights. This method did not work with former Egyptian regimes, and will not work with the current Egyptian leadership. Let alone the stains it is going to leave on the strategic partnership between the two countries. Binding the US military aid to Egypt with improving the state performance on human rights issues has instigated dozen of political conflicts between the U.S. and Egypt, in the past, which left stains on the strategic relationship between the two countries.
In 2005, the Republican Administration of President George Bush threatened to cut a portion of the annual U.S. economic and military aid package due to Egypt, if then-president Mubarak had not availed a space in parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, who represented themselves to the international community as political dissidents, at that time. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists gained more influence over social, cultural, and political arenas inside Egypt. Meanwhile, the relationship between Egypt and the United States fell into a long pause for about four years, until Bush was replaced by Obama in 2009. During those years, the U.S. role and interests in the Middle East region were dramatically hindered.
Ten years later, during which Egyptians led two successful revolutions that overthrew Mubarak’s autocratic regime, in 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s theocratic regime, in 2013, the U.S. Administration of President Obama played the same dangerous card of mixing the military aid with the human rights issue, against the current regime of President El-Sisi. Similar to what happened with President Bush, the Obama Administration’s move backfired, causing serious damage to U.S. political and military influence over the Middle East, while in return did not stimulate any tangible human rights reforms, as a direct result to this pressure.
For the past four decades, Egypt depended, almost exclusively, on the United States for armament. Egypt receives an economic and military aid package of 1.3 billion dollars from the United States on an annual basis, in compliance with the provisions of the Peace Accord signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979. A few months after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, in 2013, the Obama Administration decided to freeze the military aid to Egypt, and thus put on hold its military procurement efforts. The aid freeze got partially lift in 2015, and then applied again in 2016, and then lift again in 2018, after Trump took office, and then partially cut at the end of Trump administration.
Eventually, Egypt found itself obliged to abandon the U.S. as its exclusive military ally, and decided to actively diversify its sources of armament to avoid the consequences of U.S. morbid abuse of the military aid in applying political pressures. Today, Egypt’s military exporters and allies include Russia, China, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt occupies 3rd position among world’s 25 largest arms importers, in 2019.
During the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, last week, the Egyptian delegation met with senior officials from USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense. For sure, that was a good opportunity to discuss the defective approach of using the US military aid package to Egypt as a tool to pressure for human rights improvements. However, the concluding joint statement of the meeting did not mention any progress on this particular issue, despite its extreme importance. “The United States welcomed Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy, and national plans to advance human rights in the country in cooperation with civil society;” mentioned the joint statement. “The United States noted the significance of Egypt’s recent $1 billion nationally funded contract to refurbish Egyptian Apache helicopters, supporting hundreds of U.S. jobs and increasing Egyptian readiness.”
Regionally: Sudan Above All Else
The scope of the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue is broader than the immediate political, security, economic, and cultural aspects of the bilateral relationship between Egypt and the United States. Former episodes of this strategic dialogue used to define the agenda for the regions of interest to the United States, wherein Egypt enjoys a political or economic influence; namely, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the eastern Mediterranean, and the eastern Africa regions. This time, the strategic dialogue between Egypt and the United States is happening at heated times for all the aforementioned regions. Fortunately, Egypt has a crucial role to play in controlling the courses and outcomes of these conflicts.
The Middle East, especially the Gulf and the Levant regions, is hardly recovering from the consequences of the extremely chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which added volumes to the region’s existing sufferings with political instability and terrorism. At the same time, the rising threat of local militia and imported mercenaries in northern African weakened states, such as Libya, is still a big concern. Likewise, the eastern Africa region is boiling with civil wars that provided a fertile soil for terrorist organizations and tribal militia. Despite the continued threat of terrorism, the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue did not mention any thing about cooperation on fighting terrorism. This indicates a shocking shift in the foreign policy of the Biden Administration, in contrast to former Republican and Democratic administrations that put fighting terrorism in the Middle East as the central theme for their relationship with the countries of the region.
Another interesting observation that proves the severe change in the U.S. foreign policy, under Biden, is about marginalizing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For some reason, the Israel-Palestinian conflict was not the top priority item on the agenda of the US-Egypt strategic dialogue. That is despite the fact that the Israel-Palestinian conflict was the main reason that pushed the Clinton Administration to initiate the strategic dialogue with Egypt, in 1998. Ironically, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has also been the reason why the Biden Administration decided to be more friendly with El-Sisi leadership, despite initial cautions and hesitations. Egypt’s single-handed success in controlling the armed conflict between Hamas and Israel, in May, pushed Biden to take the Egyptian leadership of President El-Sisi more seriously, and reapproach Egypt as an indispensable regional partner
Nevertheless, the turmoil in Sudan appears to be the main topic on the agenda during the Egyptian American talks, last week. Some observers argue that the recent coup in Sudan is the main reason why the United States decided to resume the talks with Egypt, in the first place. Egypt and the United States have distinct views on the situation in Sudan, though. The brief mention of Sudan in the concluding joint statement indicates that the two sides could not agree on how to intervene to control the turmoil.
On one side, Egypt seems to be unwilling to reverse the coup in Sudan because it serves its security and economic interests, especially when considering the long-term conflict over the Nile River with Ethiopia. Egypt, Sudan’s closest neighbor and ally, has not reacted to the turmoil in neither a negative nor a positive way. That is despite the fact that Egypt previously condemned the failed coup attempt by Al-Burhan, in September. Apparently, Egypt is preferring to remain silent, this time, in order not to push Sudan to side with Ethiopia in the ongoing conflict over the Nile River.
On the flip side, the United States has been relentlessly pressuring General Al-Burhan to reverse the coup and re-install the civilian government. On the next day of Al-Burhan’s coup, the U.S. Secretary of State, Blinken, announced that the Biden Administration will suspend the aid due to Sudan (700 million dollars), until Al-Burhan reverses his action. Despite that, the U.S. officials have been very careful not to openly label the current events in Sudan as a coup.
The resumption of the two decades of US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue, last week, carries a lot of cheering promises that should make us optimistic. At least, it helped us uncover the critical shifts in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, under the Biden Administration. This will definitely require Egypt to redesign its role in the key regions of the Middle East, eastern Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean, where it has a crucial role to play, whether it decides to coordinate with the United States or not.
However, this should not make us ignore the critical points of disagreement, on bilateral and regional agendas, between Biden and El-Sisi’s visions that may hinder any positive results of this dialogue or any other talks in the future. Although the agendas of the two strategic allies is perfectly aligned in terms with classic regional topics such as Israel and Iran, the two partners need to re-align their visions regarding modern pressing challenges, too.
Such conflicting views towards current domestic and regional challenges need to be appropriately resolved to ensure the success of the strategic dialogue in having a geographically wider and time-wise longer effect. That includes the divergent views on the pace and process of advancing human rights; the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are deceitfully posing as Egyptian opposition or human rights defenders in the United States; the current turmoil in Sudan; and the U.S. Administration’s indifference towards the Nile River conflict.
The success of any future, bilateral or regional, strategic cooperation between Egypt and the United States is dependent on narrowing the gap between the conflicting visions adopted by the American and the Egyptian Presidents on these specific topics.
Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.