Egyptian-US relations have been challenged like never before over the last decade. From the popular uprising in January 2011, the 30 June Revolution and its adverse impact on relations between Cairo and the administration of former US president Barack Obama, the interlude of the Trump administration, and then the election victory of Democratic Party President Joe Biden who has placed human rights and democracy at the forefront of his foreign policy, relations between the US and Egypt have been severely tested.
For one reason or another, misperceptions have piled up in managing the four-decade relationship between Cairo and Washington over the last ten years. In the first four months of the Biden administration, bilateral relations between the Egyptian and US governments were in the deep freeze, so to speak. There were no high-level contacts, either through telephone calls or visits by senior officials, with political observers tending to attribute this to deep and serious differences concerning human rights issues in Egypt.
The media coverage of the apparent coolness in the relations between the two sides, whether in Egypt or the US, did not help either. On the contrary, it exacerbated the gulf between the two countries, and this lasted until the ceasefire agreement that Egypt successfully concluded between the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza and Israel in May 2021.
Biden then called Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi twice. The first call was to encourage Egypt to help the warring parties to stop the fighting. The second, taking place after the ceasefire agreement came into effect, was more consequential in terms of Egyptian-US relations. It covered not only the situation in Gaza, but also bilateral relations between the US and Egypt. According to an Egyptian readout of the call, President Al-Sisi welcomed discussion of human rights questions on a sustainable basis with the US administration in a context of mutual respect.
This was the turning point that all concerned had been waiting to witness, and it was a much-needed reset in Egyptian-US relations. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken then visited Cairo, where he had a meeting with President Al-Sisi and held discussions with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri. These high-level contacts led to a breakthrough in Egyptian-US relations that both sides considered to be a “strategic partnership.”
This partnership later witnessed a major development and a great boost when Blinken hosted the Strategic Dialogue between the US and Egypt at the State Department in Washington on 8-9 November. This dialogue was the first that had been held since 2015 and the first since the present US administration came to office last January.
With the final statement on the US-Egyptian Strategic Dialogue released on 9 November, bilateral relations are now more solid. A page has been turned, and the two countries have successfully worked out their differences as far as human rights questions are concerned.
The statement is a roadmap for the constructive management of their strategic partnership. Through two days of intensive and comprehensive discussions at the ministerial level and with inter-agency delegations, the dialogue covered bilateral relations extensively. The two sides committed themselves to working together to deepen and expand these relations in all fields, from the security-military, the economic-financial, the educational-cultural and scientific research to more cooperation and coordination in international forums concerning a host of international and regional questions.
In answer to questions that directly touch upon Egyptian national security interests, the US administration reaffirmed its support for the Egyptian point of view to a great extent, notably on the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
In addition to the opening remarks made by Blinken before the dialogue sessions had started, the statement stressed that Biden supported the “water security” of Egypt and called for the resumption of the tripartite talks among the concerned parties of the GERD based on the UN Security Council presidential statement issued on 15 September 2021. This said the talks should be conducted under the auspices of the present chairmanship of the African Union (AU) and with reference to the Declaration of Principles of March 2015 signed in Khartoum by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
As far as human rights questions are concerned, the statement stressed that the two delegations had a “constructive dialogue” on this issue as well as on “fundamental freedoms” including civic and political rights. It also acknowledged “economic, social and cultural rights.” This acknowledgement is a recognition of the basic Egyptian position that human rights should not be limited to political issues only. It was noticeable that the US administration then “welcomed” the release of the Egyptian National Strategy for Human Rights.
Judging from the paragraph on human rights in the dialogue statement, it is clear that the two governments have succeeded in working out their differences through diplomacy to a large extent on this important question. It is also encouraging that they have agreed to continue talking about human rights.
The latest round of the Egyptian-US Strategic Dialogue has opened up a new chapter in Egyptian-US relations and has consecrated the two countries’ strategic partnership for the next four years until the next US presidential elections in 2024.
This partnership has served the national interests of both countries in the past, and there is no doubt that Egypt and the US will continue to nurture it in order to defend and protect their mutual strategic interests in the Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa regions.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly