Egypt seeks to strengthen US ties ahead of new administration
Washington - As much of the Middle East and North Africa has succumbed to turmoil, Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to position itself as a source of stability. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States provides a clear opportunity for Cairo to further cement a narrative of Egypt as critical to US interests in the Middle East.
This was most recently demonstrated by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Washington in early December. However, it remains unclear whether this narrative, which elevates security and stability above all else, has been fully accepted in Washington.
During his visit, Shoukry repeatedly spoke of strengthening a renewed US-Egypt strategic relationship. In a speech during the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum, he referred to a “revival” of the US-Egypt relationship and a common agenda for fighting terrorism and achieving stability in the Middle East. In comments to PBS NewsHour, Shoukry talked about a parallel vision between Trump and Sisi regarding counterterrorism and stability.
His remarks demonstrate Cairo’s belief that the Trump administration will better serve Egypt’s interests than US President Barack Obama. Indeed, Cairo’s focus on counterterrorism and anti-Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric is in line with the views presented by Trump during his campaign and the president-elect has on more than one occasion expressed admiration for Sisi personally and Egypt’s counter-terror efforts more generally.
This narrative surrounding the US-Egypt relationship was also reflected in Shoukry’s meeting with Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, in which he relayed Cairo’s eagerness to work with the new US administration and emphasised Egypt’s role as a partner in regional security.
Shoukry also discussed “the strategic relations between Egypt and the United States” during meetings with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and key lawmakers from the House and Senate foreign affairs, armed services, and appropriations committees. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, notably expressed strong support for Egypt as “vital to US interests in the Middle East” and said the Trump administration was prepared to closely cooperate and enhance relations with Egypt.
Still, there were signs during Shoukry’s visit that some in Washington were not wholly satisfied by this counter-terror and stability-focused narrative. Shoukry noted in his interview with PBS NewsHour that he and Pence did not discuss the issue of human rights during their meeting. However, several lawmakers did push back against recent developments in Egypt that raise human rights concerns, even as they expressed support for strong US-Egypt ties.
Many raised the issue of a new non-governmental organisation (NGO) law that Egypt’s parliament passed during Shoukry’s visit, which places severe restrictions, as well as tough penalties for violations on NGOs. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, both of whom met with Shoukry during his visit, released a statement condemning the “draconian legislation,” which they said “would effectively subject the operation of independent NGOs to powerful Egyptian security agencies”. They added that, should Sisi approve the law, they would seek to conditionally tie the amount of US financial assistance to Egypt related to human rights and democratic benchmarks.
US Representative Ed Royce, R-California, also raised concerns regarding the impact that the NGO law would have on American NGOs operating in Egypt during his meeting with Shoukry, as did several other lawmakers.
Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, while pledging to “stand with the Egyptian people” to confront security threats, highlighted the need for Egypt to prioritise human rights and freedom for NGOs and their workers. Cardin also raised the case of Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy, who is currently jailed in Egypt. Her case has garnered attention from a number of US lawmakers in recent months.
In her interview with Shoukry, PBS NewsHour’s Margaret Warner brought up the NGO law and Hegazy’s detention, noting that “human rights are a deep concern here in the United States in terms of what’s going on in Egypt”.
Nevertheless, Shoukry’s visit will likely set Egypt up well for cooperation with the new US administration. His visit reflected efforts by Cairo to capitalise on an incoming administration that is unlikely to place much emphasis on human rights or allow human rights concerns to weigh on the provision of US assistance to Egypt. Indeed, during his visit, Shoukry called for the United States to increase military assistance to Egypt to support the country’s fight against terrorism.
This may resonate with Trump, who in a recent speech said the US goal in the Middle East should be stability and that the United States should partner with any country “willing to join us in the effort to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism.” Moreover, Trump’s pick for secretary of State, Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson, is unlikely to put human rights at the top of the agenda. His strong ties to Russia are positive for a Cairo that has grown closer to Moscow in recent years.
Yet while Cairo may find an ideal US ally in Trump, it is worth noting there are key leaders in Washington who are unwilling to let focus on stability obscure concerns over violations of fundamental and human rights. How this will play out following Trump’s inauguration remains unclear.
Still, it is likely that some lawmakers in Washington, irrespective of Trump’s relationship with Cairo, will seek to strike a balance between pressing the issue of human rights while continuing to support the important US-Egypt relationship.