Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to President Trump signals the restoration of the close U.S.-Egyptian relations that have been a key pillar of U.S. policy toward the Middle East for four and half decades. The United States has an abiding interest in a stable, prosperous and well-governed Egypt, and Egyptians have an interest in close relations with the United States’ government, economy and society.
The two nations share many common interests, and the two governments agree on many things and disagree on others; this is natural in most partnerships, and is true of other American partnerships in the region, such as those with Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Today’s meeting between Presidents Trump and Sisi is an opportunity to communicate to our respective publics that Washington and Cairo are back in business. The signal is key to U.S. allies and friends in the region, including Israel and the Arab Gulf states, who believe a strong Egypt is vital to their security, and to the restoration of stability in the chaos-torn Middle East.
The United States and Egypt agree on the need to defeat terrorism, to push for a more moderate Islamic narrative, to end civil wars and stand up failed states, and to reduce interstate proxy wars. Both leaders understand the urgency of rekindling economic growth and job creation. They also agree on the need for progress on the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Arab peace process.
With regard to areas of difference, it is natural that the two capitals see the world and their own priorities through different lenses. The United States is critical of the Egyptian government’s record on democratization and human rights; Cairo is critical of any external meddling in Egyptian internal affairs, but it is more urgently critical of Washington’s drift away from the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and the risk of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Areas of robust cooperation between the two countries should include the following:
First, Egypt is a key ally in the war on terror, and cooperation between the military, counterterrorism and intelligence institutions of the two countries—already strong—should be reaffirmed. The United States has an interest in helping Egypt defeat the ISIS threat in northern Sinai while reducing civilian casualties; it also has an interest in helping Egypt secure the Suez Canal and maintaining overall maritime security in the Red Sea. And Egypt can be helpful to the United States in the coalition to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Second, the United States and Egypt should engage diplomatically at the highest levels to work for regional stability. Egypt, as the largest Arab state and the seat of the League of Arab States, can play an important role in helping find a resolution to the civil war and failed state next door in Libya, and in helping find a political way forward between the regime and opposition in the devastating civil war of Syria. It could also play a role in working toward a less conflictual relationship between Iran and its Arab neighbors, based on principles of state sovereignty, withdrawing support for armed nonstate actors, and noninterference in domestic affairs of other countries.
Third, the United States will need Cairo in any attempt to engage Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Cairo remains a key player in avoiding another Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in finding ways forward in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace processes. It enjoys special standing in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.
Fourth, the United States and Egypt should boost their economic cooperation. The revival of the Egyptian economy is key to meeting Egypt’s need for jobs. President Sisi’s government undertook painful but necessary economic reforms last year as part of the country’s $12 billion loan agreement with the IMF, and growth for 2017 is projected at 4.2 percent. The United States should maintain its backing for Egyptian economic reform and development, both through its support in the IMF and World Bank, and bilaterally. And both President Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson, as business leaders, should find ways to encourage more U.S. companies to engage and invest in Egypt, and to encourage American and international tourism back into the country.
Egypt, like many countries in the region, and like the United States itself, faces a complex array of economic, security and political challenges. Both governments, in Cairo and in Washington, have gotten some things right and others wrong. But the key to a successful U.S.-Egyptian relationship is maintaining mutual respect, something that has been sorely missing in recent years and has pushed the two nations apart. Both nations—nations that could be described as the oldest and youngest on the planet—have an interest in reinforcing the bond between their two peoples, on working together to address common threats and challenges, and cooperating to realize the economic, social and political potential of their two nations. The upcoming meeting between Presidents Trump and Sisi is an opportunity to move in that direction.
Frank G. Wisner served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1986–91. Paul Salem is the Vice President for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute.
Image: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi meeting with Vladimir Putin. Kremlin.ru