Egyptian president has opportunity to restart relationship with US
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump and senior policymakers comes at a vital point in the US-Egyptian relationship.
Over the last 16 years, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, the US-Egyptian relationship has been greatly strained. These years have also been a time of immense hardship and change for the Middle East, where many parts of the region descended into intense violence.
Both presidents have the opportunity to change these dynamics, renew the US-Egyptian partnership and help build a strong, independent and stable Middle East.
Egypt is a vital ally of the United States due to its geostrategic location; its population (the largest in the Middle East and North Africa); its Suez Canal linking the Red Sea and Indian Ocean; and its traditional leadership role in the Arab world, which is partly a function of the al-Azhar University and mosque.
Under former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United States pursued a strategy of political and social transformation in the Middle East but failed to understand or manage the implications of their policies.
During this time, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya fell into civil wars that created a vacuum for terror groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) to flourish. Meanwhile, Tehran’s revolutionary expansionist government used regional instability to expand and cement its malign influence over the region.
While Egypt also went through a period of crisis and had missteps along the way, the country has now moved towards establishing stability and assuming a leadership role.
Now Egypt has the opportunity to rebuild its strategic bilateral relationship with the United States.
During his election campaign and in the early days of his administration, Trump stated his desire to remake US foreign policy. He promised to defeat terrorism, step away from the internal political dynamics of foreign countries, allow the Middle East to solve its own problems and support long-term alliances that benefit the tactical and strategic interests of the United States.
Sisi should build on those themes and focus his discussions with the Trump administration on three key areas that benefit both countries.
The first is expanding economic and trade ties. Sisi’s impressive reforms, which include the development of infrastructure and the reduction of subsidies, are under way and should win the support of the United States.
As the largest market in the region that has strong links to the Gulf states, Africa and Europe, Egypt’s reforms make it an even more attractive market for US investment but Egypt will need US goods and services to renew its manufacturing base.
Sisi should ask Trump to support those efforts with new agreements and facilities. He should request that Trump back the Export-Import Bank, which has played a major role in financing US-Egypt commercial deals.
Second, the United States should renew its important cash flow finance system, which would guarantee long-term bilateral military cooperation and allow Egypt to purchase much-needed military equipment.
The two countries’ precarious and inconsistent military relationship has been one of the greatest sources of tension. This was particularly evident when the Bright Star joint training operation was cancelled in 2013, raising concerns about whether Egypt’s military equipment was sufficient to defeat terrorists within its borders and support regional security.
Going forward, the two countries’ presidents should do everything in their power to put their security relationships ahead of politics.
Finally, the United States should support and encourage Egypt in taking a leadership position in the Middle East by helping Cairo stabilise neighbouring countries and defeating terrorists in Sinai.
US efforts should also go towards establishing an Arab version of NATO, with a military alliance that is strong enough to defeat terrorists and other threats. With the largest military in the region and deep ties to the United States, Egypt would be the ideal country to lead such an alliance.
By taking a leadership role, Egypt would be better positioned to build off its historic role in working towards a peaceful two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Sisi’s visit to Washington offers an excellent opportunity for the two countries to remake and strengthen their important partnership. The Egyptians should work with the needs of the new US administration to develop mutually beneficial policies that will create a strong and stable Egypt. This would benefit the whole Middle East.