United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid an official visit to Cairo, his first since he became America’s top diplomat a year ago, on Monday 12 February. The visit came as a part of a Middle Eastern tour for Tillerson that will also take him to Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and, finally, Turkey. In Kuwait, the American Secretary of State will participate in two important international conferences, one on the reconstruction of Iraq, and the second grouping the 74-member international coalition against the terrorist organisation, the “Islamic State”.
This Middle Eastern tour comes at a time of high uncertainty in the region in light of the faltering efforts to implement Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015 concerning Syria on the one hand, and the military escalation between Israel and Iran on the other hand. Last weekend saw the downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defence batteries on Saturday 10 February, which was followed by 12 Israeli attacks against what the Israelis claimed to be Iranian bases inside Syria. The reason for this unprecedented escalation was an Iranian-made drone violating Israeli airspace, according to the Israeli version of events. Both the Syrians and the Iranians denied that a drone was sent into Israeli skies from inside Syria.
In Cairo, Tillerson met with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry separately. At a joint press conference between Shoukry and Tillerson, it was clear that the two sides showed a marked willingness to strengthen Egyptian-American relations in the years to come. The two governments agreed to resume the “strategic dialogue” between them. The Egyptian foreign minister said that it would take place in the second half of this year. It will not be the first round. Cairo and Washington had respectively hosted previous “strategic dialogue” sessions in the past four years. Moreover, the two sides would discuss engaging in the 2+2 formula whereby joint meetings of their respective foreign and defence ministers are held on a yearly basis.
The talks reflected a political will on the part of the two governments to go forward in the bilateral context, and to work together in search for political solutions in Syria as well as in Libya. Secretary Tillerson praised the role Egypt has been playing in these regards. As far as the Palestinian question is concerned, Tillerson reiterated the American commitment to push for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis; a peace that would be both just and comprehensive, as he put it.
The Egyptian-American talks discussed two sensitive questions, namely, human rights and non-governmental organisations. The American concerns in this respect are well known, and the discussions, hopefully, brought the two sides closer together on this matter. It goes without saying that these two matters will remain a main irritant in the bilateral relations. The international press coverage, particularly in the United States, of Egypt’s record on human rights and the role of civil society does not help the two countries in overcoming differences of opinion that have dogged the two sides in this respect for more than a decade now. However, it was interesting to note the full support that Secretary Tillerson expressed for Egypt’s fight against terrorism. He also expressed American support for the next presidential election in Egypt, due next month. He also called on Egyptians to vote.
The talks that Secretary Tillerson held in Cairo demonstrated the political will of the Egyptian and American governments to strengthen their bilateral relations in the years to come, and to work with other international and regional powers to reach political solutions to the crises in Syria and Libya, in addition to cooperate, further, in the fight against terrorism and extremism.
Of course, American-Egyptian relations have proved their resilience throughout the past four decades, however, the fast-changing regional scene will test this relationship in the future.
Hussein Haridy is former assistant to the foreign minister