Egyptian officials are again shuttling between Cairo and Washington, taking advantage of the apparent relaxation of the disapproval shown by the Obama administration for the coup which unseated the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi eight months ago. His almost certain successor, ex-general Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is clearly happy that Washington has softened in its attitude, despite Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
This week, Egypt’s intelligence chief Gen. Mohamed Farid al-Tohamy was in Washington with a briefing for US officials on the dangers Egypt faces from Al Qaeda in Sinai and entrenched in the Suez coastal cities, reinforced in recent weeks by an influx of Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS) fighters from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq via Jordan.
Acceding to Cairo request for advanced intelligence-gathering systems, Apache helicopters and other equipment for fighting terrorists in Sinai would ease the partial arms embargo imposed by Washington for the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president and subsequent persecution of his party.
It would also signify the administration was no longer cross over El-Sisi’s arms transactions with Moscow.
(See DEBKA Weekly 632 of April 25: Washington Rushes to Appease Cairo after Arms Deal with Moscow)
Until now, the Apaches were held up pending Egyptian negotiations for the purchase of Russian Mig-35 bombers.
Egypt’s foreign minister tries explaining away mass death sentences
Foreign Minister Fahmy tried explaining to administration officials that if he is elected president at the end of this month, El-Sisi will continue to fight the Muslim Brotherhood – while at the same time also promoting democracy.
This contention did not altogether satisfy Washington, especially when, on Monday, April 28, an Egyptian court passed mass death sentences on Brotherhood leader Mohammmed Badia and 682 of his adherents after a hearing of 10 minutes.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the key Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, jumped up the next day, so incensed, that he vowed to block any further military aid to Egypt until a semblance of due process and justice was installed.
Fahmy could only offer a lame and muddled explanation for his government’s actions:
“We need to ensure security, so there is calm and then there is more tolerance for political space – not between the government and the Brotherhood, but among society itself, because that’s where we need to go and that’s where we will go.
“But it cannot be based on an ideology that puts your ideology before your nationality, or that allows you, if you face a problem, to use force,” he continued. “Those are not elements accepted in any democracy, nor will it be the case in Egypt.”
Washington to send a military delegation to Cairo – after all
Fahmy added reassurances that the current US-Egypt relationship is “not a one-night affair. This is something, if you’re going to invest in it, it’s going to cost you a lot of money, it’s going to take time, you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions … I think it’s well founded, but any marriage has its hiccups.”
The Obama administration appears to have decided to roll with the hiccups for now.
Next week, a US military delegation is scheduled to go to Cairo for an examination of Egypt’s arms requests and to see if they match up with its practical security needs. Their findings will go before President Barack Obama for approval.
Two Middle East players have been enlisted to lobby Washington on Cairo’s behalf: Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed, a big wheel in Washington’s financial and intelligence circles; and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has pull with the US Congress.
They will both pitch a similar message: US-Egyptian ties are beset with difficulties – some incurable – yet, in view of Saudi Arabia’s unpredictability, Obama would be well-advised to enter into cooperation with the largest Arab nation.
That isn’t to say American concerns aren’t justified, but at the same time dialogue between the two governments would be of overriding value to US strategic interests.
Fear that El-Sisi will use counter-terror operation to seize Libyan oil
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources point to the three concerns that trouble the US administration the most about El-Sisi:
1. The fear that once the Egyptian ruler gets what he wants from Washington without reservations, he will forget his promises and change direction to a path not previously indicated to the Americans.
2. He will use US funds and military assistance to continue to crush the Muslim Brotherhood
3. The administration has learned from new intelligence that El-Sisi is considering sending his army to invade eastern Libya for a massive offensive against organizations tied to al Qaeda.
Their largest concentrations are to be found in Benghazi and Derna.
Egyptian intelligence has traced to these two Libyan towns the sources of most of the arms used by Brotherhood and al Qaeda terrorist cells in Sinai and the Gaza Strip to terrorize Egyptian cities and menace the Suez Canal.
Washington fears that the Egyptian ruler will use a counterterrorism operation in eastern Libya for a dual purpose, namely for the seizure of the oil fields and installations of Cyrenaica.