Washington's grand strategy enshrines Egypt's status quo

No matter who's in the White House, Washington's grand strategy enshrines Egypt's status quo
8 min read
15 Dec, 2021
Despite some major divergences and unresolved dilemmas between Egypt and the United States, it is premature to predict any significant shifts in the carefully-calculated pragmatic relationship between the two, writes Sahar Khamis.
President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi waits to take the stage to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on 24 September 2019 in New York City. [Getty]

Egypt has always been a significant geostrategic ally of the United States due to its unique geographic location, the vital Suez Canal, its historical and cultural heritage, and being the largest country in the Arab world, politically and demographically. Also, Egypt is the second-largest U.S. military aid recipient, second to Israel, and it has become an important broker in some regional conflicts, such as the Gaza war ceasefire and the crisis in Libya.

This highlights the significance of the recent bilateral strategic dialogue between both countries and its extensive media coverage, which mostly focused on areas of agreement. However, it is equally important to highlight unresolved dilemmas and divergences.   

"the United States' position on human rights in Egypt remained rhetorical, rather than practical"

Framing the Dialogue in Egyptian Versus Western Media

Official, state-controlled, Egyptian media celebrated holding this dialogue as a sign of Egypt's strong relationship with the United States. They featured Secretary of State Blinken’s statements on the importance of cooperation with Egypt and Egyptian foreign minister Shoukry's statements on the strength of the bilateral relationship between both allies. They hailed such reaffirming joint statements as proof that the bilateral relationship did not diminish under a Biden administration.

They tactfully used this dialogue to send a message that not only is Egypt's relationship with the United States "indispensable," as the Egyptian Minister described it, rather that Egypt itself is an indispensable ally of the United States, thus boosting Egypt's geopolitical significance, while countering the growing influence of other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

However, some western outlets stressed that both sides did not agree on some pressing issues - including Egypt's human rights record, Sudan's military coup, the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam's negotiations, and Egypt's increased cooperation economically and militarily with China and Russia, respectively, which the United States is uneasy about. That is why some western media described this dialogue as "tackling myriad irritants" between both countries and that it comes amid tensions over Sudan and human rights.

Egypt's Human Rights Woes

Egypt's deteriorating human rights record is attributed to a plethora of repressive measures, urging Secretary Blinken to raise Egypt's human rights record as a key issue during the strategic dialogue.

However, Egyptian foreign minister Shoukry stated during the strategic dialogue that Egypt's human rights agenda will be dictated by its priorities and needs, signalling that it does not welcome other countries' interference in this matter. The same message was conveyed by President Sisi previously in a meeting with European Union leaders.

Due to these discrepancies, Shoukry stressed that such discussions should be held privately, rather than publicly, to avoid "public shaming that only creates negative attitudes in Egypt."

Although Egypt has adopted a few tokenistic measures lately, such as launching a national strategy for human rights, tens of thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars. These include high profile political figures, such as Dr Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, whose health condition significantly deteriorated, and political activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, whose life is at risk.  

Perspectives

However, the United States' position on human rights in Egypt remained rhetorical, rather than practical, disappointing some human rights activists who were urging the United States to use the leverage of its military aid to Egypt to put the necessary pressure on the Egyptian regime. 

The Biden administration's decision to withhold only the symbolic amount of US$130 million from Egypt's US$ 1.3 billion annual military aid triggered criticism from both the Egyptian regime's critics and its supporters. The Egyptian regime's critics considered it a disappointing slight slap on the wrist, while its supporters criticized the contrast with Israel's total impunity, despite its human rights violations.  

Diverging Stands on Sudan's Coup

The United States quickly condemned the military takeover in Sudan, labelling it as a coup, just like it labelled Tunisia's president's confiscation of powers as a coup, unlike the military takeover in Egypt in 2013, triggering some criticism of its chameleon-like policy. Egypt, unsurprisingly, steered away from this labelling, choosing to only ask all the parties in Sudan to stay calm and to avoid violence.  

Moreover, an article in The Wall Street Journal mentioned that there were secret talks between President Sisi and General Burhan one day before the coup when Burhan flew to Egypt to get "the green light" for his plan.  

Notably, Egypt refrained from signing a joint statement drafted by the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates urging the restoration of a civilian-led government in Sudan. Unlike Blinken who mentioned Sudan in his closing remarks following the dialogue, saying that both countries "have a shared interest in Sudan's democratic transition," Shoukry did not mention Sudan, focusing instead on mutual cooperation.

The military council's reinstating of the Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was immediately welcomed by Egypt, as a step towards restoring stability. However, with the protests and popular resistance in Sudan against this step, this Egyptian backing should be taken with a grain of salt, coming from a country where the military derailed democratization, using similar tactics.

This new step narrowed the gap between the Egyptian and American positions on Sudan's crisis since the United States indicated that it is "encouraged" by it. However, the new developments in Sudan will determine whether this gap will widen or shrink.

Stalled Progress on the Ethiopian Dam Negotiations

One key issue for Egypt is the "Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam" (GERD), which created an unresolved dispute between Ethiopia, on one hand, and Egypt and Sudan, on the other hand. 

With Ethiopia's plan to start the third-filling of this Dam next year, and the limited progress on the negotiations front, so far, Egypt was hoping that the United States could play a decisive role in resolving this crisis.

However, to Egypt's disappointment, between the outbreak of large-scale violence in Ethiopia, the United States' numerous domestic challenges, and the military coup in Sudan, the timing could not be worse for any breakthrough on this critical issue.

What Comes Next?

Egypt's increased economic collaboration with the US's main economic rival, China, through signing new technical and economic agreements recently, is worrisome to the United States. What is even more concerning for the US is Egypt's increasing military and economic cooperation and closer relationship with Russia.

Therefore, far from being a perfectly harmonious dialogue, through which both Shoukry and Blinken were all smiles, as described in some media outlets, there were significant divergences and unresolved dilemmas they both had to tackle, which were purposefully underplayed to draw a picture of a perfect dialogue, and an equally perfect relationship, to boost mutual strategic interests.

When President Biden became the new leader of the United States, there were many speculations around his new style of leadership, especially in the realm of foreign policy, posing the pressing question of whether we can witness a new chapter in Egyptian-American relations, or if he will continue on the same path of previous American administrations, which mostly supported Arab dictatorships, at the expense of human rights, as long as they served American interests.

"Despite some of the highlighted divergences and unresolved dilemmas between both countries, it is premature to predict any significant shifts in the carefully-calculated pragmatic relationship between the United States and Egypt"

Although there have been some rhetorical shifts in the recent US political discourse on Egypt, with the current administration issuing statements stressing the need for more democracy and a better human rights record in Egypt, in contrast to former President Trump calling President Sisi his "favourite dictator," no significant shifts in America’s policy on Egypt have been witnessed.

Some critics of the US's foreign policy of holding the stick from the middle when it comes to dealing with dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, including the Egyptian regime, claim that it puts to the test the current administration's commitment to democratic principles and human rights, and, in turn, its international credibility and moral authority, which were expected to take a better turn under President Biden's new slogan: "America is back."

However, far from returning to the international arena as a strong leader, the United States is grappling with a unique, and unfortunate, amalgamation of internal challenges, which have a crippling effect on its international leadership and moral authority, including its ability to dictate the rules of the game to other countries in the realm of human rights abuses, dictatorship, and corruption.

Despite some of the highlighted divergences and unresolved dilemmas between both countries, it is premature to predict any significant shifts in the carefully-calculated pragmatic relationship between the United States and Egypt, which continues to prioritize mutual interests, such as maintaining stability in the Middle East, partnering in counterterrorism efforts, and strong relationships with Israel, over values, such as commitment to democracy and safeguarding human rights and civil liberties. There is no reason to optimistically expect this democracy-security dilemma to get resolved any time soon.  

Dr Sahar Khamis is an Associate Professor of Communication and an Affiliate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland. She specialises in  Arab and Muslim media, and is a public speaker and radio host.

Follow her on Twitter: @Skhamis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.