Kerry and Shoukri
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Egypt in mid-March to lead his country’s delegation to Egypt’s Economic Development Conference.Sources say the participation of the top US diplomat should not be seen as a sign that Washington is intending to offer generous economic support to Egypt in the near future. It is, however, a clear indication that the wave of political disagreement between Cairo and Washington is under control.
When Kerry arrives in Cairo he is expected to set a final date for a new session of the suspended US-Egypt strategic dialogue with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukri. The assessment in Cairo is that “spring is most likely”.
Pursued in the second half of the 1990s by former top Egyptian and US diplomats Amr Moussa and Warren Christopher, the strategic Egypt-US dialogue was intended to allow for the candid management of Egyptian–American disagreements over Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
“This is not the first time that we have gone through a period of tension in our relations with the US and it will not be the last, but it is not tension of a kind that can challenge the foundations of the relationship,” said a concerned Egyptian diplomat.
“It is a moment of cold, but only a partial cold because elements of the Egyptian-American relationship are going well.”
The US has yet to overcome its misgivings about the political changes that have occurred in Egypt since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.
“The US has decided that the current authorities in Egypt have sufficient support and there is no other address in Cairo to go to,” says another Egyptian diplomat. She added that a majority of the people who count in the Obama administration have decided it is better to keep channels open than engage in a high-profile confrontation with Cairo.
The reason for this, she argues, is that despite “the file of democracy and human rights — something that almost everyone in the administration and Congress says is not going well” — Egypt’s relations with Israel are well managed.
“We are at a high point of coordination and understanding,” says one official. Cairo is offering its traditional support to the non-Islamist side of the Palestinian equation and remains on good terms with leading Arab Gulf capitals.
While Cairo remains very cautious when it comes to Iran, Egypt is “offering very valuable support to the US in its war against radical militant groups in Arab countries,” according to a well-informed security source.
The overall health of the bilateral relationship is reflected in a decent showing of US economic and military support, including the delivery of military equipment that Egypt is using in its war against the Islamist militant “insurgency” in Sinai, according to a Washington source.
Nor, say sources on both sides, is it impossible for an understanding to be reached on the more public disagreements between Egypt and the US or, as one American source insisted on putting it, “between Egypt and many members of the international community, including concerned Arab countries.”
Those disagreements appeared to reach a head with Cairo’s diplomatic campaign to press for a UN-led intervention in Libya to eliminate Islamist groups, including the Islamic State (IS) group.
Diplomatic sources in New York, the scene of the last week’s ministerial level UN Security Council debate on the matter, say the US, along with concerned states around the Mediterranean, is uncomfortable with what it sees as a deliberate attempt by Cairo to isolate all shades of political Islam in Libya, a highly conservative society, in order to avenge its own quarrels with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Egypt acted firmly against Al-Nahda [the Tunisian Islamist political party] to ensure the new rulers in Tunis [following presidential elections] would not be Islamist. But Tunisia is not Libya. Unlike Tunisia, Libya does not have a vibrant political life and the Libyan [military] general [Khalifa Haftar] does not have any serious backing in Libyan society,” argues a Cairo-based Western diplomat.
In New York and Washington Egyptian diplomats are working with their counterparts from the US and other countries to formulate a road map to handle the situation in Libya.
In Cairo, Egyptian diplomats repeatedly accuse Cairo’s regional adversaries, Doha and Ankara, of working to prevent the emergence of any consensus on Libya. Qatar and Turkey, they say, have been fanning civil strife by offering military, intelligence and financial support to radical militias.
Western diplomats say Bernardino Leon, the UN envoy to Libya, might be close to securing a tentative agreement over a Libyan government of national unity. Some of them accuse Egypt of deliberately spoiling Leon’s chances of success by trying to dictate political parameters for any Libyan settlement that would exclude Islamists.
During the UN Security Council meeting on Libya earlier this month Leon promised to deliver a Libyan national unity government by the end of February or early March. When Kerry arrives in Egypt for the economic conference, officials in Cairo believe they will be in a position to question Washington’s position on Libya if no progress towards a national unity government has been made.
But Libya is just one of many issues Cairo wants to bring to the table in the next round of Egyptian-American talks.Egypt, supported by the UAE ambassador in Washington, is keen to get US approval for setting up a collective Arab military force, which is expected to be the subject of discussion at the next Arab summit, “for the security of Gulf countries, Yemen and Jordan” and to counter the threats posed by radical militant groups, especially IS.
Some regional diplomats posit the possibility of future coordination between US forces based in the region and any new pan Arab force.
Yemen will also be high on the agenda, given the strategic interests of Egypt and the US in the Red Sea and the concerns of Saudi Arabia, a key ally of both Egypt and the US.
The construction of the Renaissance Dam by Ethiopia and the potential threat it poses to Egypt’s water security will also feature on the agenda.
“Ethiopia has been procrastinating over any serious steps that might reassure us that the construction of the dam will not hurt Egypt’s water interests. We are asking concerned world capitals to use their relations with Addis Ababa to convince Ethiopia to be more forthcoming,” said one source close to discussions on the issue.
“We have had disagreements, we have disagreements and we may well have more disagreements but this does not mean we are willing to compromise our relationship with the US, even as we try to diversify the reach of our diplomatic and military cooperation,” says a senior Foreign Ministry source.
This, he adds, was the spirit in which Foreign Minister Shoukri had talks in Washington last week, “not just with John Kerry, who is more understanding of the new political reality in Egypt, but also with [US National Security Advisor] Suzan Rice.”