Rocky road ahead for US-Egypt relations

Egypt-US relations are on the upswing due to common security threats, but problems remain.

Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the US State Department [AFP]

Egypt’s strong stand against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), especially in the wake of the brutal killings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by an ISIL-affiliate in Libya, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s call on Muslim religious figures to re-examine Islamic texts to bring them into the modern world as a hedge against their exploitation by extremist groups, have contributed to a more positive image of the Egyptian government within the halls of the US Congress.

Such sentiments will make it easier for the Obama administration to resume deliveries of some held-up military items, such as F-16 fighter jets. However, until the Sisi government eases up on human rights abuses, particularly of journalists, bloggers and secular opposition activists, relations will remain problematic despite this recent mending of fences.

When US Secretary of State John Kerry testified before Congress in late February about foreign policy budget issues, most of the questions and comments he received on Egypt had more to do with the hold-up of military items – with members complaining about it – rather than the efficacy of the annual $1.5bn aid package to Egypt that has been a source of contention over the past few years.

Fault Lines – Egypt and the US: After the coup

In response, Kerry said: “I believe it’s important to for us to provide some of these items and I believe decisions will be forthcoming that will set out how we proceed forward to do that.”

Critical partner

Earlier that month, Kerry held a joint news conference with visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry where he called Egypt an “increasingly critical partner” in counterterrorism efforts. Kerry also mentioned that Egypt is “working with us in the Sinai against terrorism“. 

With the US public taking a hostile position towards ISIL because of its brutality against US citizens and other nationals, it is not surprising that countries that have been on the receiving end of ISIL’s violence and are in the anti-ISIL coalition (both of which apply to Egypt) have been seen in a more positive light not only by the American people but by Congress.

This, then, has given the Obama administration more room to manoeuvre to assist Egypt strategically and economically. Though no additional aid package is in the offing, Kerry is expected to attend the big investment conference that the Egyptian government is hosting in Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-March which is expected to tout Egypt as a place to do business.  

Although the conference is geared to the foreign private sector, having the US secretary of state in attendance (along with other foreign officials) gives Egypt’s economic reforms, at least, the stamp of approval from Washington.

That said, Egypt’s problematic human rights record continues to be a thorn in the side of more positive relations. Even when praising Egypt on Capitol Hill, Kerry expressed concern about the five-year sentence recently meted out to opposition blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and the trial of some journalists. And in his joint press conference with Shoukry, Kerry referenced “some of the challenges” that Egypt faces as it moves “to the elections and the fulfilment of its promises about democracy”.

Meanwhile, prominent Republican Senator John McCain stated at the end of February that while Egypt has legitimate security concerns, which necessitate US support for its fight against terrorism and extremism, “there does not have to be a trade-off between democracy and security”.

Egypt's problematic human rights record continues to be a thorn in the side of more positive relations. Even when praising Egypt on Capitol Hill, Kerry expressed concern about the five-year sentence recently meted out to an opposition blogger.


McCain criticised the arrest of opposition activists and journalists as well as Egypt’s new anti-terrorism law that would “institutionalise arbitrary detentions and place undue restrictions on civil society operations”. 

Political roadmap

Egypt’s political roadmap has hit a pothole in that parliamentary elections, initially scheduled for March and April, have been postponed because of a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that the election law concerning the drawing of voting districts was unconstitutional.

Sisi wanted to tout these elections as a sign of the country’s democratic progress. In the face of the court’s decision, he has charged a committee to redraft the election law with utmost haste.

More importantly in terms of Egypt’s image, Sisi, in early March, sacked his controversial interior minister, Mohammad Ibrahim, who has presided over a heavy-handed campaign not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against some journalists, bloggers, and secular oppositionists.

Sisi’s decision to remove Ibrahim from his post may be firstly because the police have not been able to quell extremist violence in the Sinai and in mainland Egypt itself. But the decision may also have been made to mollify Egypt’s secular intelligentsia, a key constituency, who has questioned the police killing of a secular female oppositionist and other police abuses, as well as the US and some EU countries which have continually raised the issue of human rights.

It remains to be seen whether the new interior minister will be any more tolerant of those expressing dissent than his predecessor. If not, relations between Washington and Cairo, while on the upswing in large part because of common security threats, will remain rocky.

Gregory Aftandilian is a former Middle East analyst at the US State Department and a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.