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The Egypt-US one-day strategic dialogue concluded Sunday with no major disagreements, only “differences in points of view over some issues, which is natural” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri after his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry confirmed that bilateral ties are now on a “stronger base” despite tensions, over Cairo’s human rights record.
Political analyst Mohamed Al-Menshawi says the resumption of dialogue sends several messages to the new regime in Cairo, the most important of which is Washington is back to business as usual with Egypt. “The deal being struck is: aid for regional cooperation. And in the meantime Washington will continue to mention human rights and democracy on the side of the serious strategic issues,” he says.
Ahmed Youssef, a veteran commentator and professor of political science, says the dialogue is vey important in spite of differences between Cairo and Washington.
“Although Kerry said during the dialogue session that the US has proof that the Muslim Brotherhood is involved in violence, still there is still no indication that Washington will change the view it developed since the 1990s that the Brotherhood should have a role in ruling Egypt,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The statement issued by the Foreign Ministry following the dialogue meeting stressed that the two sides had agreed to continue cooperation to improve mutual security and combat terrorism and would work together to counter extremist discourse.
The two officials discussed efforts to boost democracy and human rights and the US welcomed Egypt’s joining the international coalition against IS. Kerry also reiterated that Washington continues to offer Egypt full support in the battle against terrorism.
Underlining the importance of cooperation to combat terrorism, Shoukri said that Cairo was looking forward to close cooperation on the military front which would not only help achieve security but would have the added benefit of opening up economic opportunities for investors.
Kerry expressed his government’s support for Egypt’s economy, saying the US is ready to work with Egypt to “attract more capital”. He also welcomed Egyptian measures to improve economic conditions.
In an effort to boost the economy and improve its infrastructure Egypt has been seeking to attract foreign investment since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power last year.
Kerry pointed to moves likely to increase economic cooperation between the two countries, including the new investments law which is expected to facilitate set up procedures for new investors in Egypt.
Regional issues were inevitably given prominence during the meeting, including the spread of IS, the situation in Iraq, the Syrian crisis, the war in Yemen and the Palestinian issue. Kerry described them as “multiple issues that we need to work on simultaneously”.
Al-Menshawi believes regional issues were the real focus of Sunday’s meetings, something he says is good news for Egypt.
“Egypt could play an important role in Syria since it has retained good relations with the [Bashar] Al-Assad regime. It can also play a significant role in Libya and Yemen. And of course, Egypt is in a position to contribute to the countering of radical ideas.”
The strategic dialogue also offered a chance to assuage Cairo’s concerns about the US-Iran nuclear deal and the spread of Iranian-Shia influence in the region.
“The Iran nuclear deal would have been discussed, and Kerry will have attempted to reassure Cairo that the US is not in the business of shuffling its regional alliances any time soon,” says Al-Menshawi.
Kerry argued that the deal will enhance, rather than detract from, regional security. Iran’s role as the “number one state sponsor of terror in the world” made reaching a deal an urgent necessity. “If Iran is destabilising, it is far better to have an Iran that does not have a nuclear weapon than the one that does,” he said.
This week’s strategic dialogue is the first such meeting since 2009.
The dialogue sessions were first convened in Washington in 1998 on a ministerial level. They resumed in December of the same year in Cairo, and continued in Washington in February 1999 on the level of assistant ministers. There were no more meetings until July 2006.
In the hope of reviving Egypt-US relations two sessions were held in 2009, following US President Barack Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University. Egypt called for another session in 2013 but it was postponed. Eventually scheduled for 28-29 July it was finally held on 2 August. Following an agreement to repeat the strategic dialogue every two years the next session is scheduled to be held in Washington in 2016.
The strategic political and military relationship between the US and Egypt began in 1979 with the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, since when the US has provided Cairo with $1.3 billion annually in military aid.
US-Egyptian relations cooled after Mohamed Morsi was ousted from office in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.
In October 2013 Washington announced a partial suspension of military aid in protest at the government’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters following Morsi’s ouster. However, there were signs of improvement in relations when the US administration started to ease its restrictions on the sale of arms to Egypt, delivering ten Apache helicopters in December 2014.
In March the US was represented at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm Al-Sheikh by a large delegation headed by Kerry. A major deal was concluded under which General Electric would supply Egypt with 2.6 gigawatts of power generating capacity by August. The contribution to Egypt’s power grid helped avoid power cuts and blackouts this summer and contributed to Egypt’s first ever power surplus.
In March the Obama administration resumed US aid despite continuing criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.
In June the US House of Representatives agreed the 2016 fiscal year budget. No changes were made to the amount of military aid to Egypt.
Last month the US sent eight F-16 fighter jets to Cairo and is expected to send another four later this year.
Youssef argues the change in Washington’s position towards Egypt is due to two factors. First there has been marked improvement in Egypt’s domestic security. “Although we are still facing terrorism it is now clear terrorism has no future,” he says.
The second factor is Egypt’s improved relations with other states, Arab, African and European.
US-Egypt strategic dialogue, says a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, is more important than ever given the challenges facing the region. “But for that dialogue to be effective,” he says, “it must be continuous, based on a clear agenda and according to a fixed time frame.”