While human rights linger on US radar, Pompeo Cairo visit focuses on regional cooperation
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry - Courtesy: US Embassy in Cairo

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo on Thursday ahead of his address on the role of the US in the Middle East.

Pompeo’s speech at the American University in Cairo was largely a rebuke of the Obama administration’s policies in the region, which he said had diminished the position of the US and strengthened Iran’s.

Pompeo arrived in Cairo on Thursday on the third leg of his Middle East tour. After visiting Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, the Secretary of State is scheduled to travel to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.

In his meeting with Sisi, Pompeo reiterated Washington’s “commitment to the strategic partnership with Egypt,” according to a readout released by the State Department. Pompeo “also emphasized the importance of the protection of human rights and the vital role civil society plays.”

At a joint press conference on Thursday afternoon, Pompeo and Shoukry both stressed the importance of Egypt’s strategic relationship with the US, though little real substance of the talks was revealed.

According to diplomatic sources in Washington and Cairo, Egypt’s goal in the talks was to manage any human rights concerns the US may have, while stressing the importance of its strategic value as a US ally and a partner in the fight against terrorism. The recent acquittal of NGO workers, including American citizens, by a Cairo court has alleviated some pressure from Washington, yet the global outcry over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has made the Trump administration more wary of blatant human rights abuses by its allies.

Meanwhile, regional issues — including Egypt’s stance on Syria, the formation of an “Arab NATO” and the blockade of Qatar — were also expected to be on Pompeo’s agenda.

Egypt’s relationship with Washington

“We know that the US administration is, for the most part, quite appreciative of Egypt’s situation in relation to the war on terror, but we know, of course, that there are some in the US Congress who want to put pressure on Egypt through the US administration,” an Egyptian diplomat tells Mada Masr. “Therefore, we are going to explain to Pompeo what we are doing and what we have in mind.”

With the Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, there is expected to be greater scrutiny of Washington’s relationship with Cairo, particularly around human rights issues.

Last week, House Democrats sharply rebuked Egypt over its human rights record and slashed Egypt’s annual US$1.3 billion in military aid, appropriating only $1 billion as part of a larger spending package for 2019. The bill, which is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, withholds the $300 million pending a certification by the secretary of state that Egypt is taking steps to advance “democracy and human rights,” as well to “implement reforms that protect freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, including the ability of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and the media to function without interference; release political prisoners” and to “investigate and prosecute cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances,” among other demands.

However, as with past appropriations, the bill contains a national security waiver that allows Pompeo to release the aid without making the certification, a step that has been repeatedly taken by previous secretaries of state.

“There are a few points that we will have to explain our views on in detail but I think, overall, that our relations with the US at this moment are stable – even though one has to say they have not reached the level that was expected when [US President Donald] Trump was elected,” the Egyptian diplomat says.

According to the diplomat, the“points” that Egypt would have to elaborate on include Cairo’s take on “the steps that have been taken to pursue the cause of democracy within the range of national priorities related to security and stability.”

One of the primary issues threatening to affect bilateral relations over the past several years has been Egypt’s restrictive NGO law and the conviction in 2013 of 43 NGO workers, including American citizens, on charges of harming national security, as well as the closure of four American organizations operating in Egypt.

Last month, a Cairo court acquitted all 43 defendants, and, in November, Sisi launched a process to amend the controversial NGO law. Both moves were lauded in Washington.

“The United States welcomes the acquittal of the employees of US NGOs who were wrongly convicted of improperly operating in Egypt. We strongly support President Sisi’s initiative to amend Egyptian law to prevent future miscarriages of justice,” the State Department said in a press release on the eve of Pompeo’s visit to Cairo.

Meanwhile, a US official tells Mada Masr, “This issue has long been on the agenda of the bilateral talks between Egypt and the US and it is finally off the table, in a good way.”

However the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in his own consulate in October means that Washington’s allies, including Egypt, must tread carefully regarding human rights issues, a source in Washington tells Mada Masr.

The killing sparked criticism of the White House’s cosy relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Trump administration has made it clear to its Middle East allies that is wants to avoid further complications with Congress over freedoms and rights issues in Arab countries, the source says.

According to the source, Pompeo is likely to tell his counterparts in Cairo that beyond the acquittals and the NGO law, “this is not the end of the path for the steps Egypt should take if it wishes to avoid a headache from Congress and the US media.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Pompeo did not give a direct answer when asked about human rights and whether the issue of Americans imprisoned in Egypt came up in the talks. “We talk about the full panoply of human rights issues every time we meet,” Pompeo said.

Regional issues

While human rights issues were surely on the table, the primary subject of the talks would center on security and regional issues, several diplomatic sources tell Mada Masr.

In addition to discussing the ongoing battle against militants in Sinai, Pompeo was expected to give detailed attention to Syria, Iran and Yemen, the sources says.

On Syria, the Egyptian diplomatic source says that Egypt will emphasize its commitment to the US policy of non-engagement with the Assad regime but that they would try to explain to Pompeo the need to “ease things a bit.”

In December, President Trump announced the US would withdraw its forces from Syria, although the US president and his advisers have walked back that claim in recent weeks.

“The Americans say that their top issue on the Middle East is to isolate Iran, and if they wish to do this, and we trust that they do, they cannot expect Arab countries to stand by while Iran expands its presence in Syria,” the Egyptian diplomat says.

Meanwhile, the Pompeo talks were expected to examine the “possible” role for Arab countries in securing the stability of Syria, not only to avert Iranian expansion, but also a planned Turkish military operation that had caused an open disagreement with Washington. US National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested earlier this week that the US would not tolerate an operation aimed at eliminating US-allied Kurdish militants in Syria.

An informed Egyptian government source says that Cairo has “some ideas” on what it could do “in line with other Arab countries” to help Syria come back on track. However, he argues that these “ideas” do not include a long-term or expanded military presence of Egyptian troops in Syria.

“What we have in mind is more related to expertise to consolidate security in Syria with the possible aid of a political process that could lead to the long-overdue formation of a constitution drafting committee and then to presidential elections,” the source says.

He added that Egypt has been “openly reluctant to many ideas that have been proposed by the US in relation to having a sort of long-term Arab military presence in Syria”.

Meanwhile, the Washington source says that Pompeo is likely to discuss the potential of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), what White House officials have called an “Arab NATO.” The new political and security alliance with the US would bring together the six members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan to counter Iran’s expansion in the region. In his speech on Thursday, Pompeo called on those countries “to take the next step in solidifying MESA.”

“They are still going through the discussions which are not easy given the sensitivities that [GCC member state] Qatar has with several Arab countries,” the source adds.

In June 2017, four countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — imposed a land and sea blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, a charge that Qatar strongly denies.

Qatar is expected to be a main issue, not just a footnote, in Pompeo’s Middle East tour, the Washington source says. Pompeo will call on officials in the four countries imposing the blockade to deescalate the situation in order to further isolate Iran and reduce US security responsibilities in the region, the source says.

Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East and informed Arab and Western sources say that Washington had declined all Saudi and Emirati suggestions to move the base to Saudi Arabia.

Overall, sources say Egypt and the US appear to be satisfied with the bilateral relationship but that there are no indications of any expanded areas of cooperation especially if the Trump Israel-Palestine peace deal does not progress and if the MESA arrangement continues to be stalled over Qatar.

Asmahan Soliman 

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