US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken thanked US diplomats for their “dedication and service to the American people and the US-Egypt relationship” at the US Embassy in Cairo on Sunday.
He also spent time speaking with what he called “young Egyptian leaders who are promoting our shared values and strengthening our important bilateral relationship – this makes me optimistic about our future.”
Egypt is a key partner for the US on issues like counter-terrorism and regional security. The country received $50 billion in military assistance from the US since 1978, according to the US State Department.
Blinken's fourth Middle East visit comes at an important time
Blinken’s visit to the region is his fourth so far and comes at an important time; the attacks in Jerusalem and the clashes in Jenin will be one of the subjects he will face. However, for the US in general, patching up ties with Eygpt and meeting with key regional pillars of the US security system are essential. Egypt has good ties with Israel but has had complex and challenging ties with the US over the last decade and a half.
Back in 2009, then-president Barack Obama proposed a “new beginning” in a speech delivered in Egypt. It was a “winds of change” speech, in which the US would seek to change the way the Middle East viewed the US after nine years of the Global War on Terror and almost 20 years after the Gulf War.
There was a lot of symbolic toxicity in the air. The Second Intifada was over, but extremism roared in the region. Egypt, then under former Egyptian Hosni Mubarak and his nationalist regime, was a US ally, but Egypt itself was struggling with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Mubarak was pushed from office in 2011 during the Arab Spring, Egypt became the center of anti-US protests.
Massive changes took place in Egypt from 2011-2015: The Brotherhood briefly rose to power after elections; then a second mass protest pushed it from office. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a career soldier, came to power.
Today he is the president of Egypt. Sisi has fought terror threats and economic difficulties. There are also lasting controversies that hang over US-Egypt ties.
Egypt is a key partner of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but it is also a powerful country in its own right that has historically played a major role in the region. During the 1950s to 1970s, it was a major opponent of Israel; later on it became a peace partner.
IN FOREIGN policy, it crafted its own path: Outreach to the Assad regime and working closely with Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf. It is concerned with what is happening in Libya as well as security in the Horn of Africa.
There are US voices that are critical of Egypt’s current government – and they are not concerned just about human rights. Not so long ago, Qatar-backed media was constantly backing the Brotherhood, which Egypt deems a terrorist group.
The Erdogan government in Turkey was hostile to Egypt as well. Some Egyptians believed that the US had made mistakes in 2011-2013, which led to chaos in the region. This means there are mutual concerns in Cairo and Washington about the trajectory of relations, which mirrors, in some ways, the Riyadh-US relationship, where a once strong bond has become strained.
Blinken said that he is interested in human rights and also strengthening regional and global security, something Egypt will be keen on. Blinken will be in Egypt till Monday and will meet with Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and senior Egyptian officials, the State Department announced.
Libyan elections will be discussed as well, in addition to the “ongoing Sudanese-led political process.” Then, Blinken will travel to Israel.
Egypt is the curtain raiser for Blinken's meetings in Jerusalem
This makes Egypt the curtain-raiser for the meetings in Jerusalem. Egypt has historically played a key role in talks with Palestinian factions and manning the tensions between the two sides.
Blinken last met Sisi in Washington in December. US President Joe Biden also met Sisi in November on the sidelines of the COP 27 event in Egypt’s Sharm e-Sheikh in Sinai. At the time, President Biden expressed the US’s solidarity with Egypt in the face of the global economic and food security challenges caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine, as well as his support for Egypt’s water rights.
The American-Egyptian meetings will be watched closely in the region. Qatar will be on the lookout, and so will Hamas in Gaza, to see what might come out of them. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, including Israeli peace partners in the UAE, will be attentive as well. UAE-based Al-Ain media noted that the Libyan issue is at the top of its list; Egypt has backed eastern Libyan leader Khalifa Haftar, but the US and others back the government in Tripoli. Can there be a restoration of “civilian-led rule” in Libya? This remains to be seen.
THE US will express support for the Negev Forum process and also discuss developments in Ethiopia and Sudan. In Sudan, there are questions about that country’s transition to democracy, while Ethiopia has been gripped by conflict.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is also of concern to Egypt. The other issues on the agenda will be trade and US investments in telecommunications in Egypt; it has imported some $5.9 billion from the US to build and expand its infrastructure, according to a document the State Department circulated on Saturday.
That document notes that the US and Egypt established relations in 1922 during the Warren J. Harding administration and the document mentions “realizing a democratic and prosperous future for all.” This indicates that the US wants a shared commitment to human rights; it will be interesting to see if the US mentions these issues – more than just in passing – during Blinken’s 48-hour visit.
With regards to Israel, the Egypt relationship is obviously key there have been more high-level and visible meetings between Israel and Egypt. But much more progress can take place.
Israel, the UAE and Bahrain conducted joint naval drills in the Red Sea with the US in 2021 but there don’t appear to be similar joint drills with Egypt. It is unclear if the US or US Central Command, which recently completed a large drill with Israel, or the naval component of US Central Command, will be working towards joint drills.
Egypt looks like it is returning to be a key partner of the US and as it plays a role in Israel’s ties with the Gulf; these will potentially add up to more stability in the region. Egypt’s ties with Saudi Arabia and its role in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya are also important.