By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
The resumption of strategic dialogue between Egypt and the United States this week, after a six-year hiatus, signals an important shift in US policy toward Cairo and its regime.
Washington looked the other way as millions of Egyptians rallied at Tahrir Square at the end of 2010 calling for the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of the US for three decades, in the midst of what was called the Arab Spring. President Barack Obama urged the beleaguered president to respond to his people and leave. And when he did the US watched, as Egypt’s Islamists slowly took over the country’s leadership for the first time in more than eight decades. It was a central transformation in Washington’s Middle East policy.
The US administration believed then that the Islamists were about to assume control of a number of countries in the region.
But Egypt changed that view dramatically. The military intervened to cut short the term of the country’s first freely elected president. The debate continues on whether former Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s removal of President Muhammad Mursi was in fact a military coup or a response to a second popular movement by the people who came out in millions to protest the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in running the country.
The US rejected the dismissal of Mursi and relations between Washington and Cairo dipped to their lowest level in years. Military cooperation was suspended and delivery of fighter jets was halted. The new Egyptian president sought to increase cooperation with Russia and Europe and depended heavily on the financial backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
For decades Washington had considered Egypt a major regional player and a linchpin in its Middle East policy, especially in terms of safeguarding Israel’s interests. Egypt was a close ally that relied on US economic and military aid. But rarely did the US criticize Mubarak’s human rights record and the corruption that was associated with his long rule.
With the resumption of a strategic dialogue, a symbolic but highly vital move, the US has finally closed the book on the events of the last few years. Its position on the Muslim Brotherhood and the deposing of Mursi no longer matters. It had moved forward because of two important regional developments.
The first is the recent conclusion of a historic agreement between the international community and Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear program.
Washington’s Arab allies continue to view with suspicion that deal and Tehran’s regional ambitions. Their concerns are genuine, taking into account Iran’s obvious involvement in the affairs of a number of Arab countries including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain.
The nuclear agreement will lift economic sanctions and give Tehran unprecedented mobility in the region. The Obama administration has taken a number of steps to reassure its Arab allies, especially in the Gulf, that its agreement with Iran will not be at the expense of their security and stability. But that is not the main reason Washington has decided to restore its strategic relations with Cairo. The main driver behind this is the clear and present danger that the Daesh is posing to the region and indeed the world.
The militants are now active in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt and have carried out terrorist attacks in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Cairo’s main security challenge is coming from extremists fighting under Daesh banner in Sinai. That campaign has proved to be long, costly and unpredictable for President Al-Sisi.
Egypt is also concerned that instability in Libya will give the militants room to expand and pose a bigger threat to the entire region. To confront the militants Cairo needs US help and support, and in return Washington realizes that Egypt is an important regional player whose stability and active role in the fight against extremists goes beyond the immediate military objectives.
The Daesh militancy is today the number one danger to the region and indeed the world. The militant group has used the chaos and instability in Iraq and Syria to expand at a phenomenal level. The US-led coalition against the Daesh group has made important gains but few believe that aerial bombings alone will do the job. Egypt’s war against extremists in Sinai and elsewhere will be an important chapter in the long fight against Daesh. A stronger US-Egyptian relationship will act as a counter balance to Iran’s slow rehabilitation from a pariah state.
It will reassure Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries who are worried about a possible US-Iran détente following the nuclear deal. Moreover, a strong and stable Egypt will restore that country’s regional influence and should have a direct effect on the possible resolution of controversial conflicts including the war in Syria.
The strategic dialogue should also pave the way to shed light again on the region’s endemic problems, on top of which is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which has been neglected during the past few years. America’s re-engagement in this key issue remains the only way to salvage the two-state solution.