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Egypt’s role in Gaza conflict helps Sisi break ice with Biden

President Joe Biden called his Egyptian counterpart as Egypt led back channel negotiations to mediate a cease-fire that ended the Israeli-Hamas escalation. Egypt hopes the call represents a turnaround in US ties and support for Nile Dam dispute.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received a phone call from US President Joe Biden on May 20, shortly before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire was announced between Israel and the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip. 

The call came four months after Biden took the helm in the White House, just as Sisi was looking to tighten his ties with the new Democratic administration, according to Egyptian analysts. 

In a Facebook post, Sisi said he expressed his aspiration to strengthen relations with Washington and greeted Biden with “great joy.” 

In a press conference at the White House on may 20, Biden praised Cairo's efforts to stop the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo and a member of the Civil Democratic Movement, told Al-Monitor, “The recent developments in the Palestinian cause constituted a golden opportunity for communication and to break the ice between the two presidents.” 

He added that Sisi was waiting for such a call to show that Cairo could help the United States. Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, ending 11 days of fighting. Sisi praised Biden for his role in promoting the truce. 

Egyptian presidential spokesperson Bassam Radi told Extranews May 20 that the call addressed both how to contain the dangerous escalation in the Palestinian territories and the two countries' bilateral relations, saying there was a common desire to boost them. 

With President Donald Trump’s defeat in the last elections, the new administration's position on Sisi has been an open question, although the latter was the first Arab leader to congratulate Biden.

In response to a question about whether the recent phone call warmed ties between Sisi and Biden, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denied “any coldness in relations to begin with between the two countries." He said, "Rather, both sides described Egyptian-US relations as strategic."

Four days later, Biden and Sisi had their second phone call. This time it was not limited to developments in the Palestinian territories, but included various regional issues of mutual interest such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Libya, and human rights in Egypt.

Following their second call, Sisi said his conversation with Biden “was characterized by understanding, frankness, and credibility, in all matters of interest to both countries and the region.”

Sayed holds that the contact was an important development as there had been no communication between the two presidents before it, in part because of Biden's reservations on the human rights situation in Egypt. 

In the midst of the US electoral campaign in 2020, Biden criticized Sisi in July 2020 and said that there would be no more “blank checks for Trump's ‘favorite dictator,’” using Trump's own descriptor. Biden condemned the arrest, torture and exile of a number of Egyptian activists and the threats to their families. 

Sayed added that Egypt has taken several steps to improve human rights conditions in the country, but many people are still held in pretrial detention, perhaps the reason communications between the United States and Egypt have not progressed. 

Jihad Aoudeh, a professor of political science at Helwan University, told Al-Monitor, “The reflected a dynamic of need, as it seems that the Americans needed President Sisi in light of the escalation of the Palestinian events. At the same time, Sisi showed his ability to cooperate strategically with the Biden administration.”

In an analysis published in September 2020 about US policy toward Egypt in the past decade, the Brookings Institute underscored that the US policy has shifted from a partnership into ties that are defined almost exclusively by aid and military relations. According to the paper, Sisi is also unable to maintain the historic partnership that brought together Cairo and Washington since 1979. Instead, “Sisi’s Egypt, rather than driving Arab policies like former President Hosni Mubarak did, follows the lead of his backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

In televised statements on May 23, Shoukry hinted that Cairo might host negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the future. 

Mohamed Elmenshawy, a writer specializing in Egyptian-American relations, said that the recent crisis has restored Egypt's regional role in a new Middle East following the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Elmenshawy told Al-Monitor that while no one in Washington expected Biden to initiate a phone call to Sisi, Egypt is the only side in the region that has contact with both Hamas and Israel.

At the same time, he added, “Cairo must take more serious steps [to improve] its human rights record if it wants to improve its image in Washington.”

Sayed believes that Cairo wants the US administration to take a strong stand in support of its position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as did the Trump administration. However, he noted, “There are many issues in the Middle East that interest the United States in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the conflict with Iran and competition with China.”

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