Re-evaluating US-Egypt relations
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was among the first Arab leaders to congratulate Joe Biden on his election as US president. In a statement issued on 7 November Al-Sisi said he looked forward to working with the president-elect to boost strategic bilateral relations in the best interest of both countries and peoples. Al-Sisi’s statement came amid speculation in political circles over what Biden’s presidency will mean for Egypt.
Gamal Zahran, a professor of political science at Suez University, said “there is a risk that Biden will exert pressure on Egypt over human rights and restoring the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in political life.”
Noting that Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Qatar, Turkey, and London were vocal in welcoming Biden’s election, Zahran expects “they will use their influence among leftist and Islamist organisations in the US to push Biden to exert pressure on Egypt.”
Zahran claimed the majority of Egyptians had hoped that Donald Trump would win a second term.
“From his earliest days in power Trump sought to forge a close personal relationship with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and this helped serve Egypt’s interests.” According to Zahran, Trump was about to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation despite Democratic Party Congress members and the leftist media, particularly The New York Times, campaigning to prevent him from doing so.
“Unlike Obama, Trump invited President Al-Sisi twice to the White House, and refused to exert pressure on Egypt in the areas of democracy and human rights. Trump even withheld $130 million in economic assistance to Ethiopia because of its rejection of the US-brokered deal on Addis Ababa’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”
Mahdi Afifi, an American-Egyptian political analyst and a member of the Democratic Party, agrees that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted Biden to win — “they even used their influence among Islamist movements in the US, particularly the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to rally support for Biden” — but dismisses suggestions that Biden will support the agenda of Islamist movements in the Arab world.
“There is a general consensus inside the Democratic Party that the US must learn from what happened in Egypt in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power in a popular uprising, and a belief that trying to support such movements only fuels extremism at the expense of American interests and security.
“Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year rule in Egypt was a failure, and many Democrats in Congress have signalled their backing for moves to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation,” said Afifi.
Political analyst Moetaz Abdel-Fattah agrees that Islamist organisations in the US will try to push the Biden administration to exert pressure on Egypt and, should they succeed, Biden will be an extension of Obama. “But,” he adds as a coda, “it is unlikely that they will succeed.”
“The situation is very different to what prevailed in 2013 and 2014. Egypt is now a strong country and has regained its influence in the Arab world and the Middle East. It has a lot of cards to withstand any foreign pressure and most American politicians now see Egypt as economically and politically stable.”
Biden, in any case, will have enough on his plate sorting out America’s internal problems. “He has a lot of challenges ahead, containing the rapid spread of the coronavirus, fighting racial discrimination and police brutality, and tackling severe economic problems such as rampant unemployment and sluggish growth,” says Abdel-Fattah.
On the foreign policy front Biden will have to address relations with China, Russia, Turkey and Iran. The president-elect has been clear in rejecting Turkey’s military cooperation with Russia and has vowed to revive the nuclear deal with Iran.
“I think Turkey will face a lot of pressure from Biden who has been openly critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Abdel-Faytah.
Political analyst Abdel-Moneim Said argues Biden will focus on containing the coronavirus crisis in the US, healing internal divisions and building new bridges with Washington’s NATO and EU allies.
In his first speech following his election win Biden focused on healing internal divisions, controlling the coronavirus and restoring America’s position in the world.
Biden, however, has announced during his election campaign a plan to host a “Summit for Democracy” soon after taking office. He said the summit would bring together numerous “like-minded nations” in a bid to bolster what many experts see as the flagging fortunes of liberal democracy in parts of the world.
Some US media outlets, such as The Washington Post, said on Tuesday that Biden’s advisers have made it clear that, under his watch, the United States will re-evaluate the overall relationship with Saudi Arabia and, possibly, Egypt.
Omar Mehanna, head of the Egyptian-American Business Council, believes Biden will be too busy reunifying American society to return to Obama-era policies in the Middle East.
“Biden is a moderate politician. The fact he was Obama’s vice president does not mean he agreed with the administration’s policies in the Middle East. They were driven by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Clinton, as her private e-mails reveal, supported Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Kerry worked closely with the Brotherhood, but when they lost power he accepted the status quo and between 2014 and 2016 struck up a relationship with Al-Sisi, meeting him several times.”
Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former foreign minister, said in a TV interview on Sunday that Egypt needed to prepare for a Biden administration and capitalise on its clout within America’s media and business circles.
Ahmed Abul-Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, said in a TV interview on the same day that he knows Biden well.
“I am sure he supports Egypt and is well aware that Cairo wilds a great deal of influence across the region.”
Abul-Gheit added that, as Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs accompanying former president Hosni Mubarak during his last visit to Washington in 2010, he held a personal meeting with Joe Biden, and “during Mubarak’s meeting with Barack Obama, Biden asked to take the floor and expressed his appreciation of America’s friendship with Egypt”.
Abul-Gheit sent a message of congratulations to Biden on Monday, wishing him success. “The Arab League is looking forward to dealing with your administration in achieving our mutual interests and pushing the agenda of peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East region forward,” he said.