US-Egypt ties: where does Joe Biden stand on America’s four-decade alliance?

Will the new US president be tough on an old ally or is it business as usual – what the first weeks of Mr Biden’s presidency tell us about his view of Cairo

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds a news conference with the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan, Saturday, March. 6, 2021.  Egypt's presidency says President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi trip was to address an array of issues, including economic and military ties and the two nations’ dispute with Ethiopia over a massive dam Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile. The visit comes amid a rapprochement between the two governments. (Presidency of Sudan via AP)

In the short time since President Joe Biden took office in January, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over US relations with Egypt as the winds from Washington blow cordial and cold.

Day-to-day relations continue apace but at the same time, the US president has yet to call his Egyptian counterpart.

A long, grim winter awaits after the four-year sunshine when Donald Trump was in the White House, say some analysts who point to Mr Biden’s emphasis on human rights over “hard power”.

By contrast, other experts and analysts see Cairo’s ties to Washington, forged in the 1970s, to be so intricate and complex as to be beyond the ability of any one US leader to undo or downgrade.

So who is right?

Waiting for Biden’s call

The Democratic president has yet to speak on the telephone to Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt’s general turned head of state.

It is an omission seen by many as a deliberate snub despite the fact that Mr El Sisi is not alone in waiting for a call – this US president has been comparatively slow in making calls to several allies, especially some in the Middle East.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has made it clear it was unhappy about Egypt buying Russian arms, including cutting-edge Su-35 fighter jets.

The Egyptian government, Washington contends, must also improve its human rights record.

A US government statement after a telephone conversation last month between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukry provided a mixed assessment.

"The secretary and the foreign minister highlighted the importance of the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, particularly in security and ongoing counterterrorism co-operation," the statement said.

Egyptian military in the Sinai conflict – in pictures 

“The Secretary raised concerns over human rights, which he emphasised would be central to the US-Egypt bilateral relationship, and Egypt’s potential procurement of Su-35 fighter aircraft.”

Mr Blinken said in a later tweet: "Our shared security interests must align with respect for democracy and human rights, including the importance of a strong civil society."

He was looking forward, he said , to strengthening the Egyptian-American partnership.

Egypt has been a close Washington ally since 1979 when it became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, America’s closest Middle East partner.

For continuing to honour that treaty, and with its counter-terrorism role in the region, Egypt has been rewarded with billions of dollars’ worth of economic and military aid every year, which currently runs at about $1.3 billion annually.

Even during tense periods, such as the latter part of former president Barack Obama’s second term, military co-operation between the two nations continued unabated.

That is most likely the reason why Egypt remains unfazed by the current bout of tension.

“There’s a kind of mature attitude in Cairo towards relations with the United States,” said Mohammed Anis Salem, a former Egyptian ambassador and UN official.

“Egypt saw many administrations come and go and it has understood the decision-making process in Washington. It has become well tuned to this environment.”

Business as usual?

Last month, the Biden administration set aside its concerns to approve the sale of missiles worth nearly $200 million for the Egyptian navy.

The sale was announced by the State Department, whose language could have only reassured Cairo that, in many ways, it is business as usual.

The missiles, the statement said, "will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-Nato ally".

The announcement was warmly received in Egypt, partly because of the need to defend offshore natural gas fields and facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Under President El Sisi, Egypt has sought to diversify its sources of weapons, purchasing arms from places such as Russia, France, Italy and Germany.

Its Su-35 deal is designed to give Egypt a badly needed “heavyweight” fighter-jet, in part to make up for minimal weapons and aviation systems allowed by Washington for the estimated 200 F-16s it has given Egypt over the years.

It is for that reason too that Egypt acquired French-made Rafale fighter jets.

Also last month, the first senior US official to visit Egypt since President Biden took the reins lavished praise on Egypt’s counterterrorism role in the region.

Gen Frank McKenzie, leader of the US Central Command, was in Cairo in late February to meet Mr El Sisi and his top military commanders.

Egypt, he said later in a televised interview, has been “absolutely critical to us”, citing the use by US warships of the Suez Canal, and allowing overflights by US military aircraft.

Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert from New York's Century Foundation, said that the views expressed by the US military and intelligence agencies on Egypt might not necessarily be shared by the White House or the State Department.

“This is typical Department of Defence,” he said of Gen McKenzie’s comments.

“The US government is huge and does not always speak with one voice.

“[US] security agencies are interested in intel sharing and counterterrorism,” he said.

He said Mr Biden will eventually call the Egyptian leader, but said: “The delay is intended and choreographed to send a message.”

But it is difficult to imagine the Egyptian leader anxiously sitting by the telephone waiting for Mr Biden to call, when various facets of his country’s relations with Washington are proceeding normally.

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