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Egyptian-American relations: 100 years of ‘we agree to disagree’

Egyptian-American relations: 100 years of ‘we agree to disagree’

Over the weekend, the Egyptian embassy in Washington hosted an Iftar to mark the centenary of Egyptian-American relations. In a set of speeches delivered by Egyptian and American officials, current and former, the ‘strategic’ nature of relations between the two countries was thoroughly underlined in a way that seemed to sideline the concern shared in the diplomatic quarters over the current level of disagreements between Cairo and Washington.

According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, “this is for a reason.” He argued that the core of disagreement today in the relations between Egypt and the US relates “essentially to the issue of Egypt’s internal political affairs – what they call human rights and what [Cairo] considers strict internal affairs.”

In a meeting between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his American counterpart Anthony Blinken in Washington a little more than a week prior to the celebration of the centenary of Egyptian-American relations, this issue was “very much on the table,” according to Cairo-based foreign diplomats.

In a tweet, Blinken marked 100 years of “strategic relations” between Egypt and the US. The US secretary of state also posted two letters sent in 1922 establishing the start of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The first telegram is a letter from former US President Warren G. Harding to King of Egypt Ahmed Fouad I recognising Egypt’s independence and sovereignty and establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, dated 26 April 1922.

The second is a letter from then-US Secretary of State Charles Hughes to Egyptian Prime Minister Abdel-Khalek Tharwat Pasha congratulating him on Egypt’s independence, also dated 26 April 1922.

Egyptian official sources agree. They also agree that there were “views and concerns” that the foreign minister of Egypt heard from his American counterpart and also from members of the Congress and think-tankers that he met with during his three-day visit to Washington. However, they add that it would be misleading to suggest that the talks were exclusively or even mostly focused on this file.

The sources argued that the regional developments, especially on the Palestinian-Israeli front, Libya and Syria were paramount. “In over 100 years of bilateral relations, the regional issues were always far more significant and consequential than anything else; this is nature of these relations,” the same Egyptian diplomat said.

On 28 April, to mark the centennial of diplomatic ties between Cairo and Washington on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gifted his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry with two letters marking the start of relations between the two countries in the 1920s.

Prior to this, on 14 April, while Shoukry was in the US capital for diplomatic talks, Blinken had already gifted Shoukry with a copy of both letters.

The website of the US State Department also marked the centenary. “The United States established diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1922, following Egypt’s independence from its protectorate status under the United Kingdom,” it wrote. “The United States and Egypt share a strong partnership based on mutual interests in Middle East peace and stability, economic opportunity, and regional security,” it added.

Throughout this century of relations there was only one time when Egypt severed diplomatic ties with the US. In 1967, to reprimand the overt American bias towards Israeli aggression on Egypt, Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to cut diplomatic relations with the US.

This dramatic shift marked a contrast with Nasser’s earlier attempts at rapprochement with Washington during the early years of the Free Officers rule of Egypt starting in 1952.

In a previous interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Abdel-Raouf El-Ridi, one of Egypt’s longest serving ambassadors in Washington, said that it was never true that Nasser was always trying to pick a fight with the US. The US, he said, was just too biased to Israel.

However, only a few months after the October Crossing in 1973, Anwar Sadat launched a new phase of Egyptian American relations with an exceptional welcome to the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon to Egypt in 1974.

The political career of Republican President Nixon was shortly undercut after the visit due to the Watergate scandal following the release of the Pentagon Papers. Sadat carried through his plan of establishing what is now called the strategic relationship with the US in a close dialogue that he established with Democratic US President Jimmy Carter who was elected to office right after the presidency of Gerald Ford, who had taken over from Nixon.

Upon the signing of the Camp David Accords, between Egypt and Israel with US mediation, Egypt became a recipient of generous economic and military assistance.

According to the US State Department website, since 1978, the United States has provided Egypt with over $50 billion in military and $30 billion in economic assistance. “US assistance to Egypt has played a central role in Egypt’s economic and military development and in furthering the US-Egypt strategic partnership and regional stability,” the US State Department website wrote.

According to several Egyptian diplomats who spoke on several occasions over the past 30 years, Egypt’s role in promoting regional stability was always key to the Egyptian-American relations in a way that was more significant than any disagreements on human rights.

In the late 1990s, upon his posting as the ambassador of Egypt to the US in the late 1990s, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Nabil Fahmy, later the foreign minister of Egypt in 2013, said that Egyptian-American relations should be conducted away from the agreements or disagreements over Egyptian-Israeli relations.

According to a retired Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington twice during the second administration of Democratic US President Bill Clinton and the second administration of Republican US President George W Bush, it was only around the time of Bush’s second administration that the issue of human rights and freedoms in Egypt became central to the bilateral relations. At the time, he argued, the US, traumatized by the 9/11 attacks, decided that the way out of terrorism was to fast-track democracy in all Muslim majority countries, including the Arab countries.

However, according to several diplomats who served in Washington over the past three decades, Middle East peace remained and will always remain much more consequential to Egyptian-American relations than anything related to democracy or human rights. This, they said, is a cross-partisan practice.

They agreed that it might have been more explicit with someone like former Republican US President Donald Trump. However, they insisted that it was always the case with other US presidents.

They noted that in the spring of last year, Democratic US President Joe Biden had two consecutive phone calls with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi over a few days when Egypt was mediating a ceasefire to put an end to the Israeli aggression on Gaza. The phone call came at a time when the disagreements on human rights and democracy practices in Egypt were still unresolved, following an election cycle in the US where Biden had made an issue of referring to the human rights situation in Egypt.

Today, Egyptian government officials insist that notwithstanding the fact that other regional players have become involved in promoting Arab-Israeli peace, Egypt remains a quintessential player in this respect.

According to one official, during most of his years as Palestinian president since 2004, Mahmoud Abbas would tell US interlocutors who made unreasonable offers on a possible deal with Israel, “if Egypt would agree to this, then I would agree to it.”

Egypt and the Palestinian presidency, he added, might not always see eye-to-eye today, but at the end of the day “it is very clear for Washington that Egypt’s support is a must for any possible Palestinian-Israeli deal.”

This diplomat agreed, however, that the effective suspension of Palestinian-Israeli talks had contributed to the current “sense of distance” in relations between Egypt and the US.

Still, he added, the US is very keen to engage Egypt on many other regional files, including stability in Libya, the war against terror especially in Sinai on the borders with Gaza and Israel, the promotion of energy cooperation around the Mediterranean and the situation in Sudan, East Africa and Sahel and Sahara zones.

Today, government sources insist that the US is still providing “considerable support to Egypt on many fronts,” including Egypt’s water security and economic stability. They refer to the role that the US ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo played last year during DRC’s presidency of the African Union pushing the three-way talks of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

According to a New York-based diplomat, the US supported Egypt twice in its request to hold two UN Security Council sessions on the GERD.

According to Egyptian diplomats, in talks with the top Egyptian officials, US officials have underlined their support for Egypt’s water security.

Government sources also refer to the current support that the US is giving Egypt for its demand for a fresh loan from the IMF to help overcome economic difficulties coming as a result of long economic slowdown due to the pandemic and the war on Ukraine.

These sources say that there were always be a room for disagreements between Egypt and the US be it on governance, Israel or other foreign relations issues like Egypt’s decision not to denounce Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, they add, that what is at stake is a lot more significant. What is at stake, they say, is the stability of one of the most consequential countries in the Middle East/Mediterranean regions and the stability of these regions and that of East Africa.

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