After six years of waiting, the United States and Egypt have rekindled formal strategic dialogue. While Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Cairo is by no means the only pathway to negotiations between Egypt and the U.S. (as many of these discussions have continued to take place behind the scenes over the past few years), his visit to Cairo symbolizes a rapprochement between the U.S. and one of the key players in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Ideally, it will provide an opening for expanded cooperation in the future. The talks between Secretary Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry gravitated toward three key components: shared security concerns, the P5+1 deal with Iran, and the release of aid and how this is connected to grievances over human rights status in Egypt. We offer analysis of the major concerns from both perspectives below.
Strategic Dialogue: Context and Reactions
Strategic Dialogue is a common mechanism in U.S. diplomacy. It is already used on a bilateral basis with several states such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel and Morocco. However, it has been an unemployed instrument when it comes to U.S.-Egyptian relations since 2009. We argue that this round of talks is one of the most significant developments to bilateral relations between Washington and Cairo since Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy method following the Youm Kippur war of 1973. The salience of this dialogue stems out of the new developments in the Middle East; coupled with the current U.S. administration's willingness to ratify the P5+1 deal with Iran in the congress and current Egyptian leadership's new paradigm in doing business with the world's super power.
President Obama, while concluding his second term, does not want to invest that much in an unrewarding region. The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is signaling a paradigm shift towards proxy-engagement rather than earlier direct involvement strategies. On the other hand, Egypt's leadership showed persistence in lowering its dependency on Official Development Assistance (ODA), coupled with diversifying its sources of armament. Nevertheless, both states view their relation as integral to the region's stability, resuming peace process negotiations and countering transnational threats of terrorism. During the past couple of years, security and intelligence coordination never stopped even with the U.S. withholding part of its Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Egypt following the ouster of former president Morsi. In fact, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff declared on many occasions his support to Egypt's Military efforts in combating terrorism, providing no alternative for the American decision-makers, but its support.
Dissimilar reactions were reported before the commencement of such historic talks. On the Egyptian side, local media still plays an agitating role in feeding up anti-American sentiments shared by wide segments of the population. Foreign-policy circles and academics, however, regard such a talk as an opportunity for Egypt to change its way of doing business with the U.S. Many commentators urged the Egyptian government to extend the scope of talks to include the Republican majority that controls both U.S. legislative houses and the prospective candidates vying for the American presidency in next year's elections. On the American side, security and intelligence communities show support for Egypt's current leadership, primarily their role in combating terrorism in the eastern peninsula of Sinai. However, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and several democratic senators urged Secretary Kerry to exert pressure on the Egyptian government to bring political reform in the light of the current restrictions on civil society, political activism and the numerous in absentia death sentences issued by Egyptian courts.
Common Security Threats: ISIS and Unrest in Sinai:
On the whole this relation is very important, Egypt as a leading regional power needs to coordinate with the world's most powerful state, whereas the U.S. cannot purse its interests in the Middle East without Egyptian support. Egypt has been a valuable strategic partner of the United States for the past 40 years. The lasting peace accords between Egypt, the United States and Israel continue to prove the value of diplomacy well into the 21st century. For the U.S., the containment of Daesh (IS, ISIL, ISIS) is of paramount importance. Egypt has taken a hardline approach to the handling of Daesh affiliates, although it does appear to be preoccupied in curtailing the actions of Islamist actors within its borders. Egypt is poised to play a central role in diffusing conflicts in the Gaza Strip, Libya, and Yemen, and this fact is not lost upon those in Washington, even if these incidents currently appear to be of secondary significance.
From a neo-liberal pacifist perspective, it is a bit hard to embrace military engagements of any kind; however, President Sisi's quick response to the butchering of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by Daesh was moving in a manner that was not anticipated by many on the U.S. left. In the wake of hundreds of Christian churches, businesses and homes being burnt to the ground by extreme Islamist factions in the aftermath of anti-Morsi protests of June, 2013, it was important for the world to recognize the importance that Egypt places on each of its citizen's lives and for Egypt to regain control over its national narrative. The abhorrent actions committed by Daesh against Egyptian Copts in Libya were seen as an affront not only to the Coptic community in Egypt, but as an egregious attack on Egyptian identity itself. The attacks provided President Sisi with the opportunity to demonstrate the inclusiveness of his administration and allowed him to reclaim a vision of Egyptian identity that has evolved well beyond the alienating policies of the Muslim Brotherhood regime that preceded him.
P5+1: Alleviating Fears Concerning the Deal with Iran:
It is a small wonder that U.S. allies in the region are hesitant to embrace a deal with Iran considering the world has been consistently reminded of the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran since at least the early 1980s. The unrelenting doomsday prophecies paired with proxy warfare between Iran and predominately Sunni Arab nations in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen only add more cause for caution. We are also left asking how American overtures to support the deal will be perceived internationally considering the political divide that appears to be poisoning support for it domestically in the United States. Perhaps we have all grown anesthetized to the failed prognostications of those who see Iran as an imminent nuclear threat and are now ready to see if diplomacy will work having grown tired of the banging of war drums.
Further, the effectiveness of economic sanctions on Iran are palpable. Gallup polling from early 2013 cited that 85% of Iranian respondents believe sanctions have had a negative impact of the livelihood of their fellow citizens - 83% of which claim to have been personally affected. Of those who answered, 47% believed the United States bore the most responsibility for the sanctions against Iran. It begs to reason that lifting sanctions would result in a decrease of animosity toward the American government and would be in America's best interest, convincing its allies in the MENA region is a different task altogether.
The United States is attempting to influence the international community into believing that the world is a safer place in light of the agreement with Iran. The support voiced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) earlier this week is certainly a step in the right direction and may signal a new era of diplomacy between Iran, the United States, and the surrounding MENA countries. Hence, the United States has to provide guarantees for Egypt and its GCC allies on how such deal will be practiced in reality. Last week, Egypt's Sisi and the Saudi Defense Minister issued jointly the "Cairo Declaration" stressing the two states defensive strategic measures in the light of the Arab League's Joint Arab Forces (JAF) Initiative planned earlier this year. What this will mean for the future of diplomacy in the region has yet to be seen.
Foreign Aid and Concern over Human Rights Violations:
Seeing as though the U.S. has far too often backed tyrannical authoritarian regimes in the past, the Obama administration's reluctance to release aid to the post-Morsi Egyptian government may appear as a pragmatic attempt to not repeat the mistakes of the past. However, many Egyptians saw the withholding of aid as the capitulation of the American government to the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood - a group that has been explicitly labeled as a terrorist organization worthy of eradication by the Egyptian government - and an act of hostility toward the wishes of the Egyptian populace. The fact that the United States then acted unilaterally to change the terms of the aid agreement with Egypt to include provisions for the furtherance of democratic progress only added to the ire of Egyptians who saw themselves in need of the promised counter-terrorism provisions during a turbulent time of transition. Nevertheless, the U.S embassy in Cairo announced that Egypt would receive 12 newer F-16 warplanes this year as part of the U.S. military support package. U.S. officials have to reevaluate their military's privileged position of using the Suez Canal, Egypt's airspace, military facilities, and coordination on intelligence in the light of the current administration's 2018 Foreign Military Financing (FMF) that will restrict Egypt's ability to finance its arms exports from installment to upfront-payment. Moreover, negotiations on transforming the existing 150 million-dollar Economic Support Funds (ESF) into trade-agreements have faced several drawbacks from the U.S. despite Egyptian enthusiasm.
Let us be clear, that there is no excuse for the crackdown of the Egyptian government against peaceful protesters as we do not excuse human rights violations committed by the United States or any other nation for that matter. Human Rights Watch in their report stated that Egyptian security forces killed minimum of 817 during the August 2013 crackdown. The detention of journalists and academics are also extremely troubling, to say the least. This is not to say the actions of the Egyptian government are meritless, as they have repeatedly stated that they were attempting to combat domestic terrorism aimed at destabilizing the state. Support for this claim can be found in the BBC's July 2015 report on the Sinai Insurgency, which states that up to 600 military and security personnel were killed in Sinai alone in the past 4 years. Americans should be ever cognizant of their own missteps in handling terrorist plots and the pitfalls they have faced in this struggle.
Moreover, admitting America's own murky relationship with human rights may lend some legitimacy to the critiques put forth by Kerry and help to thwart allegations of American hypocrisy and exceptionalism. The failure to recognize America's documented use of extreme force by police against minority populations, the torture and detention of uncharged individuals under the guise of combatting terrorism, the killing of innocent civilians by drone strikes, and its silence regarding Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land only lends credibility to these allegations.
Taking on an air of moral superiority will do little to advance dialogue between these two great nations, yet, these inconvenient truths ought to be addressed if there is a chance of the Egyptian-American dyad to blossom into something more than a reassurance of mutual interests. Let us sit and converse with one another to explore viable alternatives to avoid similar episodes from occurring in the future. Surely, the line between security and repression is often thin and marred with obstacles. Navigating a path forward may be much easier with a trusted confidant by our side.