WASHINGTON – The United States and Egypt put a brave face on strains in their relationship on Monday amid domestic Egyptian developments and regional crises that are testing long-standing ties between the countries.
With Egypt’s human rights record posing a significant irritant that has resulted in the withholding of some U.S. military aid and flashpoint situations in Egyptian neighbors Ethiopia and Sudan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry opened two days of strategic talks in Washington.
Aside from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's government's treatment of dissidents, the Biden administration is wary of the Egyptian role in Sudan, where a coup toppled the civilian-led government two weeks ago.
And, the U.S. remains concerned about Cairo's approach to a long-running dispute over a proposed Nile dam project in Ethiopia, which is also beset with political turmoil and a growing rebellion.
Both Blinken and Shoukry hailed the decades-old U.S.-Egypt relationship, but only Blinken raised the points of regional contention, pledging that the Biden administration is committed to resolving them.
Egypt pointedly did not sign on to a joint statement with the U.S., Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates calling on the Sudanese military to restore the civilian-led government, but Blinken said the U.S. and Egypt “have a shared interest in getting (Sudan's) democratic transition back on track.”
“The military takeover that began on Oct. 25, has been dangerously destabilizing,” he said. “A restoration of the civilian-led transitional government is the only path to facilitating the aspirations of the Sudanese people who have demonstrated remarkable bravery in repeatedly coming out in demand for democracy.”
Egypt is suspected by some Sudanese opposition leaders as having given a greenlight for the Sudan's military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, to oust Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. But Shoukry did not mention Sudan in his comments.
Blinken also spoke of deteriorating conditions in Ethiopia, where a yearlong war between the government and ethnic Tigrayans is intensifying with a rebel approach on the capital. He said the situation has a direct bearing on both Egyptian and U.S. national security interests.
“The crisis in Ethiopia also puts the stability of the Horn of Africa at risk," Blinken said. “We continue to engage with all parties to the conflict and with partners in the region to encourage peace negotiations without preconditions in pursuit of a ceasefire.”
He added that despite the tumult, the U.S. continues to support a negotiated agreement to the dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that addresses the interests of all parties. Egypt has long feared the project will severely impact the flow of Nile waters key to agriculture.
Blinken praised Egypt for its work to try to help stabilize Libya, which has been in the midst of chaos and internal unrest for years made complicated by the presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries acting on behalf of Russia, Turkey and Gulf Arab states.
On human rights, Blinken said the administration welcomed the launch of an Egyptian national human rights strategy but said the effort would be judged by its results. “Making tangible and lasting improvements on human rights is essential to strengthening our bilateral relationship and the United States will continue to support those efforts however we can,” he said.
The U.S. has complained about Egypt’s human rights record for years and the Biden administration has withheld $130 million in military aid to the country pending improvements.
Shoukry's remarks appeared to acknowledge Egypt's understanding of the concern. ""We also believe that human rights are an interdependent whole, which necessitates that we dedicate equal attention to political rights and civil liberties and economic and social rights," he said.
“This is an evolutionary process unique to each country, one that reflects and takes into consideration its social specificities, developmental realities, religious background, and cultural characteristics,” he said.
He added that the new strategy, along with al-Sissi's revocation of a long-standing nationwide state of emergency last month “are irrefutable evidence of our determination and resolve to continue to forge our path towards a modern democratic state and for the benefit of our citizens first and foremost.”