Washington – Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy research and programmes at the Middle East Institute, said that the fact that US President Donald Trump is close to the Egyptian administration does not mean the beginning of a honeymoon between Egypt and the United States, especially since Trump is not the only decision-maker in America. “There are other parties with major roles and some of them do not share Trump’s support for the Egyptian administration,” he added.
The most important of these parties, according to Salem, is the US Congress that looks at Egypt through other files, the most important of which is the human rights file. “If any country believes that what it needs to succeed in the United States is to have a good relationship with Trump, they have placed a lost bet,” Salem said.
He believes that Egypt’s economic reform programme and success story have not succeeded in closing some critical issues related to human rights and civil society organisations, although the American business community is aware of the importance of these reforms and the development of economic indicators, thus enhancing opportunities for cooperation and partnership.
He noted that there is a strong interest from the American business community in Egypt as well as from European and Arab Gulf companies. “They ask about taxes, the labour market, inflation, and the exchange rate, but they do not care much about the political stories that newspapers write about Egypt,” he pointed out.
In an interview with the press delegation accompanying the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and the Egypt-US Business Council’s door-knock campaign to Washington DC, Salem said the Middle East region, including Egypt, had bet on Trump, especially after Obama’s “abusive” policy toward the Middle East, although their expectations were greater than reality. “The inability to predict the Trump policy or his decisions on the one hand, and instability on the other, currently threaten the Middle East,” he stressed, noting that the US administration was only days ago asking Egypt about its relationship with North Korea and seeking to know all the details about that relationship, before Trump was suddenly found expressing willingness to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
“But the fact that Egypt, from the American point of view, has the largest role in the region, and as President Al-Sisi addresses several files that have succeeded in maximising Egypt’s footprrint in the region, including maintaining the stability of the Egyptian state, establishing a civil state instead of an Islamic one, and conveying this message clearly to the world, have helped Egypt gain the interest of the US administration,” he said.
“Egypt has a strong role in the region and there is an understanding between Presidents Al-Sisi and Trump that would support stability and change of thought and support modernisation. The US administration also appreciates Egypt’s development efforts, which intersects with the desire of Al-Sisi to keep Egypt standing unlike other countries. Al-Sisi wants clear relations with all parties and just solutions to the [region’s] conflicts. He is also working to push Iran to commit to the independence of the countries of the region and respect their security and safety,” he explained.
Salem said that Egypt’s operations against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula are different from what happened in Iraq and Syria. “In Syria and Iraq, there is a manifestation of the Sunni-Shiite conflict. In Egypt, there is a confrontation between the people and the state against groups carrying arms against citizens. How to deal with the families to which the terrorists belong is one of the major challenges facing Egypt. In the long run, comprehensive development in Sinai is necessary to return to normal. Many countries suffered, but Egypt is a big country with major capabilities able to eliminate the terror wave,” he explained.
According to Salem, the current priorities of the United States are the war against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and the confrontation with Iran in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria in order to find a solution to the problem of ballistic missiles and the country’s nuclear programme. The third priority is Israel, then the relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and finally, human rights and the file of freedoms, stressing that the issue of freedoms comes low on a list of priorities for the administration, although interest in the file is still present in circles of the US Congress and Department of State.
On the future of the Islamic State group in the region after its defeat in Syria and Iraq, Salem said that America, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are looking at it from their own points of view, but the most important issue is to prevent the emergence of new jihadists in the region. “Some want to find a safe exit path, but the US wants them dead,” he stressed.
As for the sacking of the US secretary of state and the appointment of a new one, Salem sees Mike Pompeo’s appointment as secretary of state could lead to more US action against Iran in Syria. He said many US allies were not happy with Trump because of his political decisions and sudden changes, but the US will remain keen to strengthen its network of alliances because it is one of the secrets of its power.
He said that the story of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which began with US efforts to spread the Turkish model, has failed and the current US administration does not sympathise with the Brotherhood. Although some of its members are received by the State Department or Congress at times, he stressed that the internal policies of each state in the region are what will determine the fate of the Brotherhood and not external factors.
Finally, Salem said that the Middle East Institute intends to establish a special research programme for Egypt, similar to its programmes on Turkey, Iran, and other countries, adding that the knowledge of American society about Egypt is limited, and depends on what is said by the major American newspapers, although these newspapers focus on certain points. “What happens in Egypt is much bigger than the coverage,” he concluded.
Gerald M Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen and a Middle East expert at the institute, said there are divergent views on Egypt in the United States, but it is clear that the US president is looking positively at what Egypt is doing internally or regionally. “Trump is constantly looking for things that would help Egypt achieve security, stability, and development,” he added.
He noted that Trump might work in the coming period to find a solution to the dispute between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on the one hand and Qatar on the other, but in a different way from that of outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He explained that his evaluation is based on Qatar’s importance in energy but bears in mind that the pillars of the administration are all aware that the US operations in Afghanistan or Iraq and Syria start with Qatar.
“Finding solutions to the problems of the region will be faster with the visit of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Washington DC and with the impact that comes with the new US secretary of state on US foreign policy,” Feierstein said, adding that bin Salman wants to change the Saudi economy and society simultaneously and seeks to win over new generations and women, as he pushes forward with religious reform. “He is trying to benefit from Al-Azhar’s expertise in this regard. He has to be careful and accommodate different groups and find political aspects that fit the economic and social changes,” he noted.
With regard to the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Feierstein believes that the decision will have serious repercussions because it will give a country like Iran the opportunity to say that it stands against America for Jerusalem.