Abdel Fattah al-Sisi requires more than a phone call with Donald Trump to get his country on stable footing.
As Donald Trump’s administration begins to think about how best to craft a bilateral relationship with Egypt, it would do well to consider the ancient myth of the Egyptian sphinx. In Greek mythology, the sphinx, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man, was malevolent. But in ancient Egypt, it was thought of as a benevolent guardian of temples, armed with ferocious strength and granted deep wisdom by the gods.
The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, like the mythic sphinx, is a bundle of contradictions with the potential to either be a problem or an important partner. The Trump administration’s task will be to craft a mutually beneficial policy that nudges the relationship — and the broader Middle East — in a productive direction.
These are challenging times for Egypt. After the roiling political events of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring, this vital Arab Sunni-majority state of more than 90 million people has been adrift. President Sisi’s government has brought a level of stability back to the country (at the expense of greater human rights concerns), but it has yet to plot a realistic longer-term trajectory. This poses enormous risks — and not only for Egypt. A destabilized Egypt would become a magnet for the Islamic State and a rich source of recruitment and resources for the jihadi group.
During a recent series of discussions between American defense experts and the Egyptian government, several key themes of its thinking emerged. First, Egypt sees itself as an anchor of stability and security in the Middle East. Led by a technocratic team assembled by President Sisi, the Egyptian government’s theme is “safe before perfect,” meaning it will try to improve on human rights but the top priority is ensuring day-to-day safety on the streets and freedom from terrorism.
Second, the government is seeking to drive economic growth, which was fairly robust in the last fiscal year (about 4.2 percent) despite a sharp decline in tourism. It is doing this by working to attract foreign direct investment, partnering with Israel in joint ventures and technology, and re-energizing the tourist trade.
Third, Egyptians want to ensure the protection of the Suez Canal, an important source of revenue for the nation and a symbol to the global shipping and logistics community for which Egypt feels responsible. Fourth and finally, Egypt is highly committed to its relationship with Israel and the United States but will seek additional, potentially unconventional partners.
Although Egypt is facing terrorism from within, including flickers of the so-called Islamic State trying to penetrate the country, the security and intelligence services are doing a reasonable job controlling the threat. They are watching both Libya to the west and events in Gaza to the east with a wary eye, and cooperation with both U.S. and Israeli intelligence services is good. Economically, growth may pick up if tourism improves, and unemployment has declined a full percentage point. The annual budget deficit has dropped 10 percent. Both corruption and excessive bureaucracy plague some industries (agriculture, textiles, manufacturing), but the government is well-aware of those problems and expending significant effort to correct them. Egyptians also need to improve the use of financial technology in their economy, which is still 90 percent “cash and carry,” with all the inherent inefficiencies and vulnerability to corruption.
How can the United States help Egyptians continue in a positive trajectory? Where do U.S. interests best align with Egypt’s?
First and foremost, we must ensure a good working relationship between Israel and Egypt. This is already a positive partnership that has significant security, intelligence-sharing, and commercial benefits for both sides. The United States can improve it by encouraging higher levels of military-to-military contact. Fortunately, the new U.S. defense secretary — former head of U.S. Central Command Gen. James Mattis — knows all the players well from his days in uniform. He should make a very early trip to both capitals and emphasize the importance of the relationship, backing it up with sensible levels of military funding and technology. We also need to be cautious with potentially controversial ideas like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — something that would be explosive among ordinary Egyptians.
A second key relationship from the U.S. perspective — one that has become increasingly tense — is that between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh seeks to lead the Sunni world and wants a willing — some would say compliant — partner in Cairo. Egyptians correctly view themselves as leaders in their own right and are unwilling to simply follow Saudi dictates on Yemen (where Riyadh has taken the lead in a war against Houthi rebels) and other difficult regional issues. The two nations also have a not inconsequential dispute over islands in the Red Sea that continues to strain bilateral ties. The United States should work hard to help these two critical allies see that the dangers posed by Shiite Iran are the main security issue in the region. New Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should make an early stop in Riyadh and Cairo.
Third, the United States can help by encouraging economic growth in Egypt. Engagement between the U.S. and Egyptian governments confers international legitimacy on the latter that can help it unlock foreign direct investment. In this sense, Trump’s call early in his presidency with Sisi was a smart move. The United States can also provide diplomatic support for Egypt in international economic bodies including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as in U.N. forums. The Trump administration should also recognize that immigration to the United States is an important economic issue for Egypt. The United States should recognize the need for legitimate travel to America for Egyptian students, business leaders, academics, and others who can help serve effectively as cultural ambassadors.
Fourth, we should work with our Egyptian partners to ensure the security of the Suez Canal, a vital global waterway and a key part of the maritime commons. This will require even better levels of intelligence sharing, developing new technological solutions for surveillance, creative counterterrorism exercises, and frequent exchanges of industrial maritime information.
Lastly, the United States can encourage regional partnerships for Egypt beyond the traditional ones with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The potential for maritime and hydrocarbon operations in the eastern Mediterranean make both Greece and Cyprus potential partners. We also shouldn’t forget that NATO has a robust program of regional cooperation in the Mediterranean for non-NATO states, called the “Mediterranean Dialogue.” This could be a good venue for cultivating such connections.
Overall, Egypt’s interests intertwine with America’s in powerful ways, most notably (though not solely) as a crucial partner for Israel. Americans should do all they can to help their Egyptian partners. Their stability and success will be essential for the eventual progress of the entire region.
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