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Searching for a conversion (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

As US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Egypt last weekend to re-launch the strategic dialogue between Washington and Cairo he may well have reflected on the wider historical and geo-political significance of his trip. Symbolically, the visit signalled that both sides have placed the worst of their differences behind them. In March this year Washington lifted its October 2013 freeze on military supplies to Cairo, public sparring between the two has been toned down and Egypt has received a number of US military and Congressional delegations in recent months.

Looking out of the window of his plane Kerry may have also reflected on the Arab/Middle East landscape extending below. Since 2011 the region had been hit by a tsunami that has brought many states to near collapse. Civil wars are raging, separatist movements have emerged and terrorist organisations have expanded. The dream of an Arab Spring bringing human rights, democracy and equitable development has all but withered away.

In such circumstances it makes sense for the US to reconnect with Egypt and focus on its core national security interests: maintaining Egyptian-Israel peace; ensuring strategic maritime and air transit routes; combatting terrorism and shoring up Gulf security. All the more given the stability and economic progress that is taking shape in Egypt under the still popular Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and its contrast to the dismal legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood year in power. Egypt, too, has reasons to focus on its own priorities: augmenting its military capacity; increasing coordination in the battle against terrorism and encouraging Washington to reengage in the search for solutions to regional problems, including the more vigorous pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Washington’s current focus on IS is welcome in Cairo, though Egyptian officials are keen it should extend to extremist groups across the region.

The sensitive issues of human rights and democratic transition in Egypt were finessed by Kerry and pre-empted by his host who took the initiative and placed them on the table in his opening remarks. Off camera the two sides appeared to have agreed on the need to strengthen Egypt’s progress on these fronts.

Kerry’s background briefing papers could easily have referred to proposals made over 40 years ago by President Anwar Al-Sadat to then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a “new strategic relationship with the US, including full Egyptian-American coordination in the Middle East and Africa”. Since then both sides have demonstrated a remarkable ability to keep the relationship alive. Concrete gains have been delivered through focussing on the core concerns of each party rather than allowing the relationship to be disrupted by wider sets of desiderata or differences. Inevitably, there have been moments of deep disagreement and disappointment. Cairo has long wanted to see a more energetic and unbiased US role in the search for peace in the Middle East and Washington covets more extensive military facilities in Egypt and robust Egyptian military action in other theatres. But in the end these differences have been overridden by more immediate concerns.

Yet confining the dialogue to the old dynamics of US-Egyptian relations, pursuing limited objectives and managing differences represents a lost opportunity for both sides. Continued obscurantism comes at a cost: repeated crises and a sense of frustration coupled with lack of public support and buy-in by political forces on both sides. Worst still, both countries may come to pay a heavy price as conflicts in the region spin out of control, unleashing chaos and human suffering. There is, therefore, a need to revisit and clarify the strategic interests of each party. Commonalities and points of divergence must be identified. More focussed analyses, visions and action plans are long overdue.

In this regard the early signals of the most recent encounter were not overly promising. Both sides seemed otherwise occupied, Kerry with marketing the Iran nuclear deal, Egypt with the opening of the New Suez Canal. The meeting was first delayed and then compressed into one day, hardly sufficient to cover the extensive challenges both sides face.

The meeting was held against a backdrop in which a new Middle East is emerging with failed states, rising non-state actors, resurgent identities, internationalised conflicts and complex regional alliances, all challenging the 100 year old maps drawn by colonial power.

There are ongoing civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and other regional conflicts which require deeper agreements on objectives and strategies (witness differences over Egypt’s reaction to the execution by IS of its citizens in Libya in February 2015 and the way US reticence in that case contrasts sharply with its support of Turkish actions in response to recent terrorist attacks).

The implications, for the role of Tehran in the region and for broader security arrangements, of the 5+1 agreement with Iran — not least how to establish a region-wide nuclear-free zone or to reintroduce a cap on the conventional arms race in the Middle East — need to be addressed, and as the region approaches the landmark of 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Golan there is an urgent need to develop an alternative to the failed search for Israeli-Palestinian peace which Kerry himself abandoned last April.

More generally, the strategic outlook held by each side needs to be discussed in detail. Recent statements by President Barack Obama and other US officials reflect views that are very distant from those in Cairo: the focus on IS while ignoring the Palestinian question, talk of Sunni states and the Sunni-Shia fault line in the region, praising Iran’s civilisation and its potential as a regional power while framing Arab societies as in need of reform, highlighting the frustrations of youth and linking that to enrolment in jihadi movements. Last week, US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said Israel remains the “bedrock of American strategy” in the region.

The early signals may not have been promising but it seems the talks may have achieved more than expected by sceptics, myself included. That the meeting took place is a sign the worst phase in US-Egyptian relations is over. Kerry spoke of returning to a “stronger base” in bilateral ties and was keen to play the right mood music for his hosts: “Egypt remains vital … to engagement and stability in the region as a whole”, Iran is the “number one state sponsor of terror in the world” and “obviously there has been a little bit of tension here and there [between US and Egypt] over certain issues”. There were hints, too, that the Bright Star biennial joint military manoeuvres, suspended in 2011, might be resumed.

Yet there have been only modest elaborations of the strategic vision or outlook of each of the two parties in this asymmetric relationship. The result is that misconceptions and false expectations continue to exist on both sides. Politicians in Washington and Cairo find it difficult to explain the underpinnings of the US-Egyptian relationship — one need think only of Obama’s description of Egypt as “neither an ally nor an enemy”. Public opinion in Egypt, increasingly important in a phase of transition and populist politics, remains polarised in its assessment of the costs and benefits of their country’s quasi-alliance with the US.

Egyptian discussions of foreign policy reflect and spill over into the debate on the Mubarak legacy. Many Egyptians, especially those who joined or supported the 2011 Revolution, view the Mubarak years as an era of caving in to American demands at the cost of Egypt’s principles and interests and are demanding a reassessment and greater distance from Washington.

It may be unrealistic to expect a sudden resurgence of an explicit, robust alliance between Washington and Cairo. But total disruption of the relationship holds few, if any, practical returns for either side. So what are the alternatives?

— That the relationship continues with a high degree of ambiguity and, in consequence, little relevance to the changing landscape of the Arab/Middle East region and beyond (the implications of the US pivot to Asia, the repercussions of the Arab Spring, the influence of political Islam, the fragmentation of states, etc.). The core elements of the relationship survive, particularly US military assistance, but the wider strategic dimensions slowly diminish. The US relationship with Pakistan is often cited as a model in this scenario. The modus operandi is “managing differences” rather than working on developing common ground. This seems to be where the relationship is at the moment.

— Both sides make a genuine effort to clarify their strategic objectives and conduct a cost/benefit analysis of methods they might be willing to deploy in securing them. In this context, Egypt seeks a realistic relationship with the US that builds on common ground, minimises divergences and, most importantly, is capable of growing in line with Egypt’s aspirations to lead the region towards more integration and development. Egypt’s ability to negotiate a successful transition to stability, democracy and grow this key to this scenario. This option appears distant at the moment and a lame-duck US president may be unwilling to pursue such an approach.

— The US cuts its losses and winds down its military assistance while Egypt attempts to diversify its sources of military supplies and develops relations with Russia, China, France and others. A degree of cooperation is maintained, particularly on non-controversial issues, but without longer term or broader linkages. Aspects of this scenario are already in evidence.

— The black swan/wild card scenario: in response to a crisis in the region (a coup or uprising in an Arab Gulf country; unchartered military action by a Middle East country) both parties pull closer together or, as differences accelerate, go their separate ways.

What is clear is that US-Egyptian encounters must move beyond “dialogue” and become a “conversation”. Dialogue can too easily become an exchange of platitudes and routine positions whereas conversation can be directed to specific outcomes, reflecting a convergence of interests and intent. The signs are the present meeting fell short of this.

The writer is the director of Development Works International, a board member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, and a former ambassador.

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