- By Daniel BenaimDaniel Benaim is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Middle East advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Follow him on Twitter:@danielbenaim.
On April 3, 74 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will receive the White House welcome he sought in vain for three years from a wary, disenchanted Obama administration.
The visit presents an opportunity to begin repairing a U.S.-Egypt relationship that has been buffeted by upheaval, mired in mutual mistrust, and saddled with unmet expectations. But even the chance of success depends on a hardheaded effort to translate goodwill into action.
From the campaign trail, Trump signaled his admiration for Sisi — including for his forceful crackdown since 2013 — and Sisi has praised Trump in return. But such warm words matter only if they unlock cooperation that advances concrete U.S. and Egyptian interests. The question confronting policymakers in both Cairo and Washington is what a revamped U.S.-Egypt relationship should seek to accomplish.
What both Egypt and the United States need now is an agreed-upon path forward together. To be successful, this vision must look not to a storied past, but squarely at Egypt’s present predicament, in particular the interlocking threats of terrorism, economic struggles, and politics made brittle by repression. Given the magnitude of Egypt’s challenges and America’s investment, success must be defined by more than a smiling photograph on the White House lawn.
Last summer, as part of a visiting research delegation, I sat for two hours with Sisi in Cairo. Egypt’s president spoke with passion about the fight against terrorism and his desire to champion moderation within Islam. He also spoke of the “strategic” nature of Egypt’s partnership with America, which he hoped could emulate U.S. support for South Korea over its decades-long journey toward market-oriented democracy during the Cold War. Far less clear, however, were the actual steps Sisi would be willing to take to move Egypt from its post-2013 defensive crouch toward Korea-like economic and political dynamism.
However troubling Trump’s striking rhetorical departure from his predecessors may be, it may win a fresh hearing for the United States with Egypt’s leaders and perhaps even some of its people. So far, Egyptian officials seem willing to overlook Trump’s anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric to focus on Trump’s endorsement of their fight against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Trump’s tone has raised expectations for improved bilateral relations. Both sides should probably measure any hopes for speedy, dramatic shifts. And one cautionary lesson from Barack Obama’s presidency is that a good opening message alone risks dashed expectations that leave relations even worse off unless matched by concrete actions.
Given this unusual opportunity, what should Trump do? The first, most basic principle is that if Washington is to seek closer ties to Cairo, it should ask for more in return. Trump has spoken of the need to ask for more from U.S. allies around the world. Egypt should be no exception.
This starts with repairing the mechanics of the relationship itself, which — apart from intelligence and military cooperation — have withered. Here’s where Trump’s rhetorical outreach matters. But equally important will be a deliberate Egyptian effort to unblock America’s technical assistance and diplomatic outreach, ranging from ending bureaucratic stonewalling to removing undue restrictions on non-political NGO implementors of U.S. educational aid. Fixing the mechanics also requires ensuring clear and reliable channels of communication between two presidencies whose lines of authority can appear opaque to outsiders — and ensuring that the U.S. government sends a clear, unified message to Egypt.
Repairing relations also requires a decisive Egyptian effort to end the anti-Americanism stoked by segments of Egypt’s government and reflected in its semi-official press. The mutual mistrust it reinforces makes everything else harder. Sisi has used his bully pulpit to shape Egyptian public opinion on sensitive topics such as Israel and reforming Islam. As part of a closer partnership with America, he should be encouraged to send an unambiguous signal to Egyptians inside government and out that America is not an adversary conspiring against Egypt, but a respected partner that should be treated as such.
On military issues, the United States should use its new political capital to deepen bilateral cooperation and training. This includes giving U.S. troops access to the Sinai region, where their expertise on issues like roadside bombs is already helping Egyptians fight terror. It also means following through on reforms that focus security aid on Egypt’s current needs — confronting Egypt’s very real and multifaceted jihadi threat, securing its borders from spillover chaos from Libya and Gaza, protecting the vital waterways of the Suez Canal, and securing the Sinai. Finally, it means using mechanisms such as Excess Defense Articles to provide urgent items like mine-resistant vehicles — but resisting a return to gifting Egypt “prestige” items that don’t squarely address its most pressing current and future military needs, and are paid for by U.S. taxpayers on credit years into the future, until recent reforms, under an atypical foreign military financing arrangement.
But American leaders should not lose sight of the bigger picture: The most important thing Egypt can do to advance U.S. interests is to take the economic, security, and political steps required to stabilize itself and deliver on the project of national renewal its leaders have promised.
Egypt’s strong cooperation on regional affairs is a strategic asset that deserves praise, recognition, and U.S. support. But it should not be cause to overlook America’s vested interest in helping Egypt address domestic challenges.
Perhaps the most urgent issue is Egypt’s economy. Egypt has recently undertaken difficult reforms to secure an International Monetary Fund package, but has yet to define a credible, affirmative plan to create the millions of new jobs its burgeoning population requires. As the U.S. and Gulf donors have learned, this path cannot be dictated from outside. But where Egypt shows initiative, America should be ready to assist — for example, it can help mobilize business executives, but only once Egypt passes an investment law. Such help should focus on America’s comparative advantages, including technical expertise — not direct cash gifts that have been dwarfed by the Gulf’s oil-funded largesse.
There’s a great deal that needs repair both within Egypt and within the bilateral relationship. But that does not mean the Trump administration can afford to ignore Egypt’s political repression or human rights. These are strategic as well as moral issues for the U.S.-Egypt relationship because they close the civic space needed for the genuine battle of ideas that will defeat extremism. In the narrowest instance, Washington should seek a quick resolution to the outstanding cases of Egyptian-Americans such as charity operator Aya Hegazy, held without trial for more than 1,000 days. But the administration and Congress should also act to ensure that the broader issues of rights and openness remain on the agenda.
Finally, Sisi has spoken passionately and admirably about the need for moderate interpretations of Islam. The Trump administration should encourage Egypt to turn this message into a comprehensive strategy for countering terrorist extremism. From economic outreach to at-risk communities to expedited social media assistance for Egyptian clerics refuting Islamic State fatwas, the main efforts should be Egyptian. But consistent with U.S. values and laws, the Trump administration should elevate the importance of such issues and assist where it can.
America should help Egypt protect itself from terrorists. But broad, politicized terrorism designations are not the right tools for the challenge to U.S. values and — in some cases —security posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Official U.S. terrorist designations need to be driven by legal definitions, rigorous professional investigations, and provable facts — not punditry, ideology, or diplomatic expediency. A closer U.S.-Egypt relationship that reinforces the most repressive impulses on both sides will serve neither country in the long run.
Given the complexity of the challenges at hand, both sides should measure their ambitions and expectations. Neither government is ready to deliver at the speed or scale the other might seek. Each will continue to find the other’s system frustrating at times.
But U.S. outreach to Egypt should aim for realism rather than resignation. Some Americans have called for an amicable divorce from Egypt and others have suggested a relatively uncritical embrace. Both have the benefit of not asking Egypt to make changes it may well prove unwilling to make. And there may come a time to consider more significant changes. But for now — given the moment and opportunity at hand — a middle path better serves U.S. interests: seek closer ties, but seek more in return.
With all of Egypt’s challenges and the region’s woes, it’s easy to forget its assets and opportunities. Egypt appears on track to avoid the worst fates of neighbors like Libya and Syria. It possesses a strategic location at the crossroads of three continents, a young workforce, a massive domestic market, a demonstrated record of defeating terrorist insurgency, a healthy reluctance to intervene in overseas sectarian conflicts, and — for all its divides — a cohesive national identity that many of its neighbors lack.
You do not have to agree with every step that brought us here to believe that Sisi’s visit presents an opportunity. The question now is whether Trump and Sisi will seize it to the benefit of both countries — or whether, absent credible plans, high expectations will give way once again to the latest chapter of disappointment, drift, and decline in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images