US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s regional tour last week included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The visit covered a range of complex and interrelated issues. In Egypt, according to a statement from the Egyptian Presidency, Sullivan and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi discussed Palestine, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). According to unofficial sources, they also discussed the US administration’s decision to withhold $130 million in US military assistance to Egypt over human rights concerns. Observers in Egypt strongly criticised the decision, claiming it failed to take into account positive developments in human rights, including Egypt’s recently launched National Strategy for Human Rights.
Sullivan’s visit to Cairo followed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Sharm El-Sheikh to meet with President Al-Sisi. The Israeli prime minister was quoted in the Israeli press as describing the meeting as “important and very good”. An Egyptian source told Al-Ahram Weekly that Bennett’s trip had raised hopes that it may be possible to revive the peace process, though that remained conditional on rehabilitating the Palestinian question after years of deferral. The US has a crucial role in this process, said the source, who added that Washington appreciates the importance of Egypt in securing the ceasefire between Palestinian factions and Israel. Egypt also has a critical role to play in the reconstruction of Gaza, another subject on the agenda of Sullivan’s visit, together with an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian-Israeli prisoner exchange deal.
According to a statement by US National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne, these subjects, as well as the outcomes of Bennett’s visit, would form the framework of Sullivan’s talks with Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata during the latter’s visit to Washington on 5 October. Horne said that while in Egypt, Sullivan would “discuss Egypt’s role in promoting security and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians following the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Egypt earlier this month.”
The same Egyptian source spoke of a shared Egyptian and US belief in the need to push the Palestinian-Israeli issue forward, and said Horne’s statement underscored the confidence Washington has in Egypt’s contributions to this process.
On Libya, another area where Egypt has an important peace-making role, the presidency said discussions reflected “the alignment of views on the need to intensify joint coordination between the two sides and international partners on preparations for holding the upcoming elections, ensuring the withdrawal of mercenaries and foreign forces, and uniting security and military institutions.”
According to sources in Egypt, there considerable factors overlap between Cairo’s and Washington’s approach to the Libyan question, though shades of difference remain over some details. Both sides are determined to help the Libyans hold elections on schedule in December, and to push for the removal of foreign mercenaries from the war-torn country. In a noteworthy development, the day after Sullivan’s visit to Egypt the Libyan foreign minister announced that some progress has been made on the issue. Meanwhile, the 5+5 Joint Military Commission is scheduled to meet in Geneva this week to discuss security-related issues ahead of the poll.
While the US is focussed more on the presence of the Russian Wagner Group in Libya, Cairo wants Ankara to reduce the Turkish military presence and to remove the thousands of mercenaries it introduced. Libyan sources told the Weekly that while some of the mercenaries will be evacuated as a confidence-building step, Turkey is insisting on maintaining the military bases it established within the framework of agreements concluded with Libya’s former Government of National Accord.
As Sullivan headed to Cairo the commander of the US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, was concluding a two-day visit to Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria to push for the implementation of the Libyan roadmap leading to elections. In Tripoli he met with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. Following the meeting he said: “We [US Africa Command] also support the UN-facilitated political reconciliation process and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya.” His meeting with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission was a gesture of US support for the reunification of the Libyan military establishment, a goal Cairo has long been promoting.
According to UN sources, UN peace-keeping forces will soon be deployed in Sirte. Egyptian sources say the issue should be discussed with Cairo given its crucial role in paving the way to the Libyan ceasefire agreement in October 2020. In June that year, President Al-Sisi had declared a “red line” from the central coastal town of Sirte southwards, effectively forcing a halt to hostilities on that front. He made it clear that the area east of the line fell within the immediate realm of Egypt’s national security.
Iraq was another subject on the agenda of the meeting between Sullivan and Al-Sisi. The US is winding down its military presence in Iraq, transferring most of its remaining troops to Kuwait, and will retain only a small presence for training purposes. Egypt, meanwhile, is part of the tripartite mechanism for development and cooperation recently agreed between Cairo, Baghdad, and Amman. Observers in Iraq say the development track is now vying with Iran’s militarisation project in Iraq. According to Iraqi political analyst Ihsan Al-Shammari, head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, the situation is governed by Arab regional balances: what is important it to restore stability to Iraq and not to reduce the situation to “one side against the other”. He also believes that efforts to help Iraq recover its regional role will help alleviate tensions, citing Baghdad’s hosting of the Saudi-Iranian dialogue as a case in point.
According to observers, the US is encouraging the tripartite mechanism, as evidenced by Washington’s support for the gas supply line to Lebanon which will pass through Jordan and Syria.
On GERD, Egypt continues to favour resolving outstanding differences diplomatically. Washington has been sympathetic to Egypt’s position. According to the presidency’s statement, Sullivan “renewed the US administration’s commitment to exerting efforts in order to ensure Egypt’s water rights, in a way that preserves the water and development rights of all parties”. It is difficult to say at this point how Washington might pressure Addis Ababa on this issue, though some believe the US might impose fresh sanctions on Addis Ababa in relation to what the UN has described as gross human rights violations during the conflict in the Tigray region.
In mid-September, the UN Security Council adopted a statement calling on Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resume negotiations over GERD under the auspices of the African Union which Egypt’s Foreign Ministry welcomed as encouraging.
Sullivan’s visit to Cairo followed an aborted coup attempt in Khartoum. Tensions are running high within the transitional authority, against a backdrop of growing economic concerns and security-related problems in eastern Sudan. Cairo is keen to support the political framework in Sudan and keep the country from a precipitous slide, an outlook that Washington shares.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly