The US-Egypt strategic dialogue was held in Washington, DC in early November between Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Initially launched under President Bill Clinton in 1998, this dialogue was held annually except for a period of stagnation under President Barack Obama, from 2009 to 2016. The talks provide an important opportunity for the two allies to discuss issues of mutual interest and joint collaboration.
The timing of this year’s meeting has special significance, as it took place in the aftermath of important regional conflicts, from the Hamas-Israel Gaza war in May to the military coup in Sudan, the instability and uncertainty in Libya, and the escalating crisis in Ethiopia, among others. Therefore, these bilateral talks provide an opportunity moving forward to revisit the nature of the relationship between the two countries: its evolution, current status, strengths, dilemmas or future threats, and potential for change.
Egypt’s Geostrategic Significance: Key Issues
Egypt has long been a significant geostrategic ally for the United States for a variety of reasons including strategic location, the Suez Canal, and economic and cultural concerns. Egypt has thus occupied a special place in US strategic calculations, received large amounts of arms supplies, and enjoyed political and diplomatic support. Two key issues are of particular importance due to their direct relevance to American national security, namely: safeguarding stability in the Middle East and maintaining strong relations with Israel.
Two key issues are of particular importance due to their direct relevance to American national security, namely: safeguarding stability in the Middle East and maintaining strong relations with Israel.
Successive Egyptian regimes, including the current one, have been tactfully pushing the idea of stability as the winning bargaining chip in their relations with the United States, both domestically and internationally. Subsequently, on the domestic front, maintaining stability is used as a justification for imposing repressive measures and stifling freedoms, and in the international arena it is used to highlight Egypt’s importance in safeguarding the strategic interests of key countries, most notably the United States, in the Middle East region.
By positioning Egypt as “an oasis of security and stability in the region,” according to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the current Egyptian regime is able to gain more legitimacy nationally and to consolidate power internationally. This also enables Egypt to increase coordination with key countries in the realms of countering terrorism and extremism by using a plethora of tools, such as counterterrorism laws, at the expense of civil liberties and freedoms.
In addition to stressing Egypt’s significance as a stable country in an increasingly unstable region, the current regime is also tactfully highlighting Egypt’s role in helping to stabilize the rest of the volatile Arab region, through serving as a key mediator in resolving regional conflicts. Examples include Egypt’s role in brokering the Hamas-Israel cease-fire in May and its calculated approach in navigating the tensions in neighboring Libya. For these reasons, Egypt earned praise from Secretary Blinken during the recent bilateral talks in Washington, as he stressed Egypt’s crucial role in securing regional stability in the Middle East.
The other key issue is Egypt’s relationship with Israel, which is seen as vitally important for American national security. The pivotal moment of signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1979 marked a historic shift from President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s anti-Israel position to a much more Israel-friendly position under President Anwar al-Sadat. This was after four Egypt-Israel wars, raging hostilities, and inflammatory rhetoric, signaling a new era of diplomacy in the region and normalization with Israel.
Taking into account Israel’s importance to the United States, as its closest ally in the Middle East, this shift heralded a new chapter in Egyptian-American relations. Egypt was rewarded for its peacemaking with Israel by receiving $1.3 billion in military aid annually, making it the second largest recipient of American military aid, after Israel.
Successive military regimes in Egypt were also rewarded by receiving unwavering support from American administrations, which constantly chose to ignore their dictatorial rule and oppressive policies.
Successive military regimes in Egypt were also rewarded by receiving unwavering support from American administrations, which constantly chose to ignore their dictatorial rule and oppressive policies. One glaring example was the military takeover in Egypt in 2013, which deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, but was not labeled as a coup by the United States. This was starkly different from Washington’s reaction to the recent military takeover in Sudan, which Washington quickly labeled as a coup, causing criticism of such a contradiction and double-standard in foreign policy on the part of the United States.
More recently, Egypt played an important role in brokering the Gaza cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, thus boosting its credibility and strategic significance in the eyes of the United States, and earning praise from President Joe Biden and his administration. Secretary Blinken reiterated this recognition during the November strategic dialogue.
There are also new signs of an increasing Egyptian rapprochement with Israel, which is taking different forms, including the following: Israel’s announcement that it is considering extending natural gas pipelines in North Sinai to facilitate gas exports to Egypt; increased military coordination in Sinai for counterterrorism measures; the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to Egypt since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution in 2011; and EgyptAir’s first direct flight to Tel Aviv. This paints a picture of a growing bilateral relationship that is stronger than ever before, as described by Sisi in his 60 minutes CBS interview in January 2019 (it is noteworthy that the Egyptian government tried to block the airing of this segment, without success).
Lingering Human Rights Dilemmas: Rhetoric vs. Action
In the lead-up to the bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington, and in parallel with it, the Egyptian government was keen to take a number of cosmetic steps to appease the American side, realizing that the issue of human rights would certainly come up as a major topic of discussion. This was especially in light of Secretary Blinken’s remarks, ahead of the dialogue, that Egypt has “more issues of concern” when it comes to human rights.
In the lead-up to the bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington, and in parallel with it, the Egyptian government was keen to take a number of cosmetic steps to appease the American side.
One of these steps was lifting the Emergency Law, which had been in effect in Egypt since April 2017. However, there are serious doubts about the seriousness of this step, taking into account the fact that the Egyptian government still has many other repressive measures and laws in place, including the passing of new “emergency-like laws” in the Egyptian parliament which strengthen the government’s iron fist policy in crushing opposition. Some human rights advocates claimed that the new law, which could be implemented if COVID-19 or other epidemics spread widely in the country, is no more than an attempt by the Egyptian government to stifle freedoms and civil liberties under the guise of protecting public health.
Another step was launching the first Egyptian national strategy for human rights on November 9, 2021, while the strategic dialogue was taking place in Washington, DC. This move, unsurprisingly, received heightened praise in mainstream state-controlled Egyptian media outlets, many of which described it as a significant milestone toward improving the country’s human rights record. However, the announcement received cautious recognition from Secretary Blinken during the strategic dialogue; he emphasized that such a strategy could be fully evaluated only if genuine results and tangible outcomes are examined.
Further, Egypt released more than 2,000 prisoners on July 23, 2021 on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. The date also marked the 69th anniversary of the July 23, 1952 revolution. The government cited rising COVID-19 cases in crowded Egyptian prisons as the reason behind these presidential pardons; it is important to note, however, that those pardoned and released did not include high profile political prisoners, many of whom are left to suffer from life-threatening and dire conditions.
In the meantime, the Egyptian government is bragging about building new state-of-the-art correction facilities that match western standards, triggering a wave of criticism, mockery, and political jokes on social media. Critics believe that the government’s aim is to polish its international image; instead, they maintain, it should invest in building new schools and hospitals, rather than new prisons to accommodate the large number of prisoners.
Despite the United States’ rhetorical emphasis on the importance of improving Egypt’s human rights record, only limited and insufficient action was taken by the current administration in this regard when it simply withheld a symbolic amount of $130 million in US military aid from Egypt’s $1.3 billion annual allotment. The move was considered by some human rights organizations as betraying the commitment to human rights on the part of the United States. They wrote a letter to Secretary Blinken, ahead of the November strategic dialogue, urging him to take a tougher and more decisive stand on human rights in a country that reportedly has tens of thousands of political prisoners—although its government is officially claiming to have none.
Future Scenarios: Possible Change or More of the Same?
There have been some recent shifts in the American political discourse on Egypt, with the current administration paying more lip service to the necessity of safeguarding democracy and human rights. However, no tangible results or meaningful policy changes have ensued. Indeed, much to the dismay of human rights organizations and activists and the Egyptian regime’s dissidents and opponents, it is becoming more obvious that the Biden Administration is not willing to take a stronger or more decisive stance on Egypt’s autocracy and human rights violations.
It is becoming more obvious that the Biden Administration is not willing to take a stronger or more decisive stance on Egypt’s autocracy and human rights violations.
This is clearly reflected in the all-talk-and-little-action approach that the Biden Administration is adopting when dealing with Arab dictatorships, including the current Egyptian regime. In fact, it could be said that the Sisi regime is benefiting from the opportunity of this strategic dialogue in Washington to polish its image and boost its international standing as a strategic and vital US ally. This explains why most mainstream, state-controlled Egyptian media hailed the mere holding of this dialogue, for the first time since 2015, as a remarkable indication of Egypt’s continued geostrategic significance as an important political player in the Middle East and as a close ally of the United States. Such a narrative dispels any conclusion that there is a major shift in US policy toward Egypt under the Biden Administration.
Only two possible scenarios might result in altering the American stand on Egypt. The first is an increase in instability and unrest in Egypt as a result of extreme political repression—which does not leave room for even a narrow margin of opposition to act as a safety valve that could release public anger and frustration—coupled with worsening economic conditions. In this case, Egypt will lose its key strategic role as a stable, and stabilizing, country in the region; the United States could then abandon its support for the Egyptian regime, as it did previously with the Mubarak regime in 2011. The second scenario is if Egypt takes any uncalculated steps internationally toward US economic and military rivals, especially China and Russia. This could result in punitive actions by the United States, such as cutting part of Egypt’s military aid, using the mantle of human rights concerns. This is what happened under the Trump Administration when US authorities discovered in 2017 that Egypt bought North Korean arms despite the international embargo on Korean weapons shipments.
Other than these two scenarios, we can expect business as usual in the realm of Egyptian-American relations—and relations between the United States and the Arab world, more generally. In fact, as the United States now adopts the axiom of going back to basics when it comes to its Middle East policy, a number of critics are wary that this could simply mean more arms sales to Arab countries and supporting dictators there, rather than charting a new path of investing in human development and prosperity, supporting democracy, and protecting human rights in this vital region.
It is becoming increasingly clear that, just like its predecessors, the Biden Administration is adopting the same old pragmatic approach of prioritizing cooperation, stability, and security at the expense of democracy and human rights when dealing with Arab autocracies. The questions remain, however, whether excessive repression and the stifling of freedoms could truly safeguard stability and security in the long run, or whether such policies create a fertile environment for chaos, conflict, and rebellion to spread, as witnessed in the volatile Arab region time and time again.