US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US, April 3, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump signaled a new era in relations with Egypt on Monday during a visit to the White House by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – and Washington’s pivot toward Cairo is good for Jerusalem as well.
Trump reversed the Obama administration’s policy of distancing itself from the military regime in Egypt in protest of the 2013 coup led by Sisi against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent human rights abuses directed mainly at the Brotherhood’s supporters.
Trump made no public mention of these human rights abuses during Sisi’s visit. Instead, he declared a new era of cooperation.
“Together, we will fight terrorism and other things and we’re going to be friends for a very, very long time,” Trump said, citing a “great bond with the people of Egypt.”
Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a clear Israeli interest, depends on incorporating Egypt in the equation. Any attempts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process necessitate the active cooperation of Egypt as a peace broker with ample influence on the Palestinians and as a provider of stability and security on the southern border with Israel and the Hamasruled Gaza Strip. There can be no lasting solution to the conflict without Egypt’s input and security guarantees.
It is significant that Trump, who has made clear his intention to attempt to clinch a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, is strengthening US ties with Egypt.
While those who value democracy and freedom might take issue with Trump’s failure to mention Egypt’s human rights abuses publicly, the sad reality is that there never was much of a choice in Egypt. Whether under the Mubarak regime or under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal democracy was never a viable option in Egypt. The same is true under Sisi. And there is little likelihood of change in the near future.
In the meantime, the US, like Israel, has an interest in strengthening its ties with the most populous Arab nation as part of the battle against ISIS and other Islamist groups. Ultimately, helping Egypt fight ISIS in Sinai and on the Libyan border helps protect American lives at home. Talk of human rights is commendable, but should not come at the cost of undermining fundamental US and Israeli interests.
While the Obama administration downgraded military ties with the Sisi regime after the overthrow of then-president Muhammad Morsi and for a time cut military aid, Trump is poised to improve relations.
Cutting off Egypt’s means to defend itself against al-Qaida and Islamic State-affiliates is to gamble with the lives of 90 million people and a country that controls the Suez Canal, one of the world’s strategic chokepoints.
In contrast, focusing on strong ties with the Egyptian military echelon makes a lot of sense. Events since the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 have shown that, no matter what happens in Egypt, the military there remains the most stable actor. It is therefore essential for the US and Israel to maintain good ties with Egypt’s military.
Cairo’s campaign against ISIS does not appear to be going well. On average, nearly two dozen Egyptian soldiers and policemen are being killed per month in the Sinai, a gruesome toll that has persisted for years. While the insurgency is primarily located in northeast Sinai, the security situation is so tenuous that Israel has urged its citizens – thousands of whom travel regularly to southern Sinai for the long Passover holiday – to leave the peninsula.
Washington and Jerusalem can do much to help Egypt roll ISIS back in Sinai. The change in US policy might even help embolden Egypt’s security forces, which have so far underperformed in their war against the Islamists in Sinai.
Trump’s heralding of a new era in US-Egyptian relations can also help bring stability to a war-torn region. While we respect the Obama administration’s fight for human rights in Egypt, Trump’s Egyptian reboot will ultimately better serve US and Israeli interests in the region.