Ambiguity and conspiracies: U.S., Egypt lose sight of what matters

As a suicide bomber blew himself up near Egypt’s Karnak Temple in Luxor yesterday, an inconsequential spat between Cairo and Washington was taking place over an unscheduled meeting between U.S. officials and members of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood visiting the United States.

The idea of a meeting angered the Egyptian government - that gets $1.3 billion annually in American aid - so much that it summoned the U.S. ambassador to Egypt Robert Stephen Beecroft “to make clear its unhappiness at U.S. dealings with the Brotherhood.” The Obama administration for its part did not do itself any favors by issuing contradictory statements on the meeting, stating during Tuesday’s briefing by State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke that “there was never any meeting planned” and then few minutes later “we decided not to hold the meeting.”

Absurd debate

The debate over four Brotherhood activists in exile holding or not holding a meeting in Washington, at a time when both U.S. policies in the region and Egypt are facing unprecedented threats, is absurd. Summoning the U.S. Ambassador over such a development is a statement on how low has politics sunk in Egypt, and how feeding conspiracies and misconceptions over Washington’s intentions and actions is becoming the hallmark of the governing elite.

With the threat of terrorism rising in Egypt, and Cairo remaining a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, this is no time for U.S. and Egyptian officials to be engaged in trivial minutia

Joyce Karam

While the U.S. ambiguous response and lack of a coherent message on Egypt plays right into the hands of conspiracy theorists in Cairo, accusing Washington of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood when it has completely overlooked the jailing of its members and shrugged off the death penalty against former President Mohammad Mursi, is nothing short of bizarre. The Obama administration, however, keeps finding itself in defensive positions over allegations it never pursued and are in fact contradictory with its current policy. Washington today as in the last three decades, has prioritized stability over any other goal in Egypt. Accepting the overthrow of Mursi on July 2013, then restoring full military aid to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government last March reasserted the “stability first” mantra while abandoning serious advocacy for democracy and good governance.

Also, if Washington were to meet members of the Brotherhood as it did in January at the State Department, it wouldn’t be unusual or uncharacteristic of U.S. diplomacy. Holding a meeting with members of an opposing party is not a statement against the current government. The U.S. follows this tradition of keeping open communications with its closest allies including Israel, the United Kingdom and Turkey.

Losing focus

With the threat of terrorism rising in Egypt, and Cairo remaining a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, this is no time for U.S. and Egyptian officials to be engaged in trivial minutia. It is in both countries interest to keep focus on the strategic framework that has defined the relations since 1979, and a recognition that both governments need one another.

While Egypt has threatened to go to Russia as an alternative to the U.S. military aid, Moscow is no substitute for American equipment, combat and training that Cairo has relied on for decades. The U.S. has also come to realize that a year of withholding some of this aid has backfired and was shortsighted for it neither achieved good governance nor meeting the strategic goals of the relationship. In urging to restore the aid, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote that “counterterrorism cooperation is growing, and Egypt continues to provide the U.S. military with Suez Canal privileges and overflight approvals, including in support of counter-[ISIS] operations.”

Feeding conspiracy theories about the U.S. policy will not help in tackling the increasing ISIS threat in Egypt, or lifting its economy. By the same token, a shy U.S. policy that pursues a hands-off approach in addressing the region’s most populated country, is doomed to fail and will end up in having others wrongly define Washington’s policy.

Refocusing U.S. -Egyptian relations on what matters most from working towards parliamentary elections, political inclusiveness and economic reforms in Cairo, and tackling the threat of terrorism beyond Egypt is paramount for the two countries.

Shy policies and propaganda wars are simply unaffordable and unsustainable for the U.S. and Egypt. Their continuation will only undermine what has been a vital pillar of regional stability.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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