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Is Washington engaging critically with Cairo?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Cairo

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will soon be in Cairo with other senior American officials to liaise with Egyptian counterparts in a wide-ranging bi-lateral strategic dialogue between the two countries. There is a lot to be potentially gained from such a high-level interchange. However, that will require a lot of hard questions to be asked, both of Egypt and the United States, in terms of Egypt’s overall direction, and DC’s commitment to Egypt. None of that is particularly likely.

The last time this dialogue was held was in late 2009. A little over a year later, the revolutionary uprising of the January 25 took place. During that year, as well as subsequently in 2012, and for a part of 2013, the Arab Republic of Egypt’s progress was of supreme interest in the policy establishment of the American capital. Within the Beltway during 2011 to 2013, Egypt was regarded as deeply important foreign policy issue. Against the backdrop of the then still fresh “Arab Spring,” which inspired optimism and promise, there was a certain amount of commitment and investment, even if just in attention and interest.

Egypt, in a fashion, has to ‘compete’ for attention due to other issues as other parts of the Arab revolutionary uprisings have yet to result in sustainable transitions to more progressive rule

H.A. Hellyer

None of that is quite the same anymore in Washington. Almost unanimously, American policy networks, inside and outside of government, regard the Egyptian military’s choice to forcibly remove then President Mohammad Mursi in the summer of 2013 as the ending of the tenuous democratic experiment that began in 2011.

Dipping interest

Subsequent interest in the workings of the country, particularly following widely reported and serious human rights violations, dropped tremendously. Egypt is often compared, quite unfavorably, to Tunisia – where the latter is perceived as holding to the democratic experiment, even if it is rather messy. That has a cost in terms of holding the short-term attention span of the American policy community.

At the same time, Egypt, in a fashion, has to ‘compete’ for attention due to other issues, as other parts of the Arab revolutionary uprisings have yet to result in sustainable transitions to more progressive rule. While Egypt is arguably incredibly important in the region from a purely objective analytical lens, there are quite a few other immediate and disturbing concerns. The rise of ISIS, referred to as “ISIL” and then the “so-called Islamic State” by some from 2013 onwards, has occupied a lot of attention in Washington that might otherwise be dedicated to engaging on the Egypt file. With the issue of terrorism becoming even more prescient, and the countries of Iraq, Syria, and Libya becoming embroiled in that discussion, the priority level of Egypt’s own internal issues, particularly with regards to governance, in Washington has dropped even more.

There is little expectation that the current political dispensation in Cairo is on its last legs or about to hemorrhage – the political alliances and arrangements in Egypt itself make that unlikely in the short term. In the medium term, there are a number of issues to address, whether political or economic – and few in Washington identify Cairo’s policy directions as succeeding in tackling those critical issues.

Security issue

But more immediate is the security issue, and this will likely dominate a great deal of the discussion in Cairo. It’s proven, however, to be a difficult discussion to have. On the one hand, American officials, in addition to a vast array of European counterparts, recognize that Egypt is facing a serious set of security threats – different ones in different parts of the country. There is the Sinai, where Cairo is battling with a radical Islamist group that has sworn allegiance to ISIS, or the “so-called Islamic State” but there are also other violent groups that are keen to see Cairo’s government crumble. Senior Western officials from a slew of countries have been clear that they expect the situation to escalate in terms of violence and in that fight, they’re certainly not on the side of the militants in any shape or form.

But herein lies the rub. The security of Sinai in particular, and Egyptian security in general in so far as it impinges of Egyptian stability whether in terms of militant groups across the territory or fallout from Egypt’s western border with Libya, is of concern in Washington. However, senior officials from the U.S. and a number of European countries, including those who are quite friendly with Cairo, regularly, albeit privately, express concerns about Cairo’s tactics and strategies in dealing with the security threats domestically and in the region. Increasingly, the impression in Europe and North America is that not only is Cairo’s security solution not delivering the needed results for Egypt, but it may inadvertently be setting into motion a scenario where radical extremism finds it easier to recruit among the wider Egyptian population.

Frustrations

At the same time, no foreign actor has put such frustrations on a priority level which makes it difficult to envisage that Cairo is going to take those frustrations particularly seriously, even though it should. Some in Washington and elsewhere would be sympathetic to the argument that without a critical restructuring of Egypt’s security apparatus and judiciary, along with governance reforms, Cairo will be unable to comprehensively tackle political violence within its borders. Nevertheless, without serious commitment to that argument in Washington and elsewhere, it won’t be taken seriously in Cairo – or during this upcoming strategic dialogue. Herein lies the key question for the United States: is Egypt really that important? Because if it is, it deserves a lot more attention than it is getting now and coming up with ways to advance the human security agenda. If it isn’t that important, then short-term, and short-sighted assessments will win out, every time.

The last time there was a strategic dialogue, it was, as mentioned, in 2009. Then, the Faustian bargain had been struck with another Egyptian political dispensation. A year later, Tunisia’s deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was fleeing his capital, and a month after that, Tahrir Square and other protests broke out in Egypt. None of that kind of upset seems likely anytime soon in Egypt but neither should one forget that a sustainable Egypt polity is best built on recognizing the endemic problems within and setting out a genuine plan for reform in order to address them. That will make Egypt more resilient in the midst of the plethora of crises that have emerged and will emerge in the months ahead. Washington should remind Cairo of all of that during the strategic dialogue. Alas, it probably won’t, which is fundamentally not strategic at all.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.


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