Despite Sisi’s warm White House welcome, Egypt-US ties facing hurdles, threat of sanctions
CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s 3-day visit to the United States placed the future of US-Egyptian relations into sharp focus.
Sisi received a warm welcome April 9 from US President Donald Trump at the White House. Trump said US-Egyptian relations had never been better and that Sisi was doing a “great job.”
However, reports indicated there were points of contention between the US and Egyptian sides, not least Arab disquiet at Trump’s decision to unilaterally recognise the Golan Heights as being under Israeli sovereignty as well as US concern at reports Cairo ordered dozens of Russian Su-35 fighter jets.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the US Senate that Cairo could face sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if the Su-35 order is completed.
Reports indicate that Cairo agreed to purchase more than 20 aircraft and weapons from Russia worth $2 billion at the end of 2018, part of a broader policy to diversify the sources of weaponry used by the Egyptian armed forces.
While Washington warned against the deal, Cairo has seen military aid withheld by the United States in recent years, including following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013. The US Congress, earlier this year, gave preliminary approval of measures that could hold back $300 million in military assistance to Egypt, citing questions about democracy and human rights.
Given that Egypt is engaged in a nationwide military operation to fight terrorism, including the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, reports in Cairo said Egypt does not want to be depending on Washington for military assistance.
“This is why I think the Su-35 deal will move ahead as planned and agreed between Cairo and Moscow,” said Akram Badr Eddine, a political science professor at Cairo University.
The multirole fighter jets would significantly bolster Egypt’s air defence and comes not long after Cairo completed the acquisition of 12 Rafale fighter jets from France.
During his news briefing with Sisi, Trump declined to answer questions on Egypt’s reported purchase of the Russian fighter jets.
Tensions between Egypt and Washington may increase over the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, with the so-called “Deal of the Century” expected to soon be released following Israel’s elections.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to emerge with a new government and questions remain whether any peace is viable. Netanyahu celebrated Trump’s decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and, in the final days of his campaign, said he would annex West Bank settlements. Instances such as these leave many wondering whether any US deal is dead before it is even announced.
“There are pressures, no doubt, especially by Israel on the United States,” said Gamal Salama, a political science professor at Suez Canal University. “Relations between the United States and Israel are intertwined since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.”
An Egyptian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, said Sisi’s US visit was important because it was the first meeting between Trump and an Arab head of state since the Arab League unanimously rejected Washington’s decision on the Golan Heights.
“We will not be able to say the visit has been fruitful unless we see clear US proposals based on the Arab Peace Initiative,” the diplomat said. That plan calls for a two-state solution and Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
Sisi publicly called for a “just and lasting” solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during his meeting with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and who was tasked with drawing up the Israeli-Palestinian
However, during Sisi’s meeting with Trump, both leaders publicly sought to prioritise bilateral relations over regional tensions. Before leaving the United States, Sisi described his talks with Trump as “fruitful” at all levels, although details remained sparse.
“I talked with President Donald Trump about extremely important issues of common interest,” Sisi wrote on Facebook on April 10. “We agreed on strengthening cooperation mechanisms between our two countries on different regional and international issues.”