x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

US-Egypt relationship still haunted by large divisions

Recent visits to the US by Nabil Fahmy and Amr Moussa illustrate how uphill that task is going to be

Recent visits to the United States by Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, and Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief, illustrate how much work remains to be done to repair US-Egypt relations – and how uphill that battle is going to be.

Both men did their best to explain Egypt’s perspective to Washington audiences, and it’s hard to imagine any two Egyptians better suited to the task. But both faced enormous, almost overwhelming, scepticism from the American policy community and media, and neither made sufficient progress.

Public appearances by these two experienced diplomats drew questions that were not merely sceptical of their perspective but often veered into the hostile. Much of what they encountered was set against the backdrop of recent headlines, making their task all the more complex.

In particular, the two mass death sentences against alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters were raised time and again.

Although both Mr Fahmy and Mr Moussa said the stories had been misreported, neither man provided a compelling alternative narrative that made their American interlocutors feel they had been profoundly misled.

The current approach appears to miss the mark in several ways.

First, it asks people to wait for the final verdicts without acknowledging that there is something extraordinary and improper about such preliminary mass death sentences.

It should at least be conceded that there is no history of such judicial conduct in Egypt, and that therefore there is a reasonable basis for anyone to express concern.

Messaging cannot simply be about style, but must address existing concerns as well. Not just Americans, but people around the world, especially those who care about Egypt, are concerned about what would seem to be at least one judge handing down unprecedented verdicts in exceptionally high-profile and profoundly sensitive and political cases.

Second, both men rightly emphasised the separation of powers, citing it as a reason why other branches of government cannot interfere with the judiciary.

This begs the question of why the judiciary itself isn’t acting to curb such excesses.

But more importantly, it opens the potential for an important argument. For, if this is a question of separation of powers and neither Mr Fahmy nor Mr Moussa is directly connected to the judiciary, then surely this buys space to legitimately question the conduct of another branch of government, which is responsible for and of itself.

In this instance, not only can one have it both ways, but one really ought to.

The minute separation of powers is invoked, it becomes entirely legitimate to question the conduct of a member of another branch, especially when that official is behaving in an unprecedented manner. Perhaps alarm might be overstated, but surprise and concern would easily fit into a political framework that emphasises the separation of powers and a distinction in government branches.

It’s possible that the political situation in Egypt makes it hard for even the most experienced and adroit of diplomats to publicly take such nuanced positions without facing a potential firestorm of criticism back home. But it’s likely that there is a way to make the case more effectively in Washington without alienating the mainstream in Cairo.

More importantly, such tactical messaging questions are subordinate to a much deeper problem with the strategy of Egyptian messaging aimed at Americans. And it’s a strategic problem that is consistently reflected in the approaches of many key American allies in the Arab world.

The primary takeaway from the Fahmy and Moussa trips must be that, while it is a welcome development to finally have senior Egyptian political figures making the rounds in Washington again, piecemeal or occasional messaging cannot successfully bridge the enormous gaps in perception that have emerged between Egyptians and Americans over the past year.

As many of the closest allies of the United States in the Arab world have been slow to understand, effective messaging in Washington is not conducted in crisis mode or when there are urgent, pressing questions. In that case it will always look like, and may to some extent even be, damage control. But very little headway can be made under such conditions.

Effective messaging requires constant effort, which is consistent and sustained, and that, counterintuitively, will be most effective when there is the least attention on it.

It is precisely during these times of apparent lull that real, sustainable understandings can be developed that are capable of withstanding serious jolts to the system.

And it is precisely in such a workaday environment that deeply-rooted and strategically essential partnerships, such as that between Cairo and Washington, can be reconstructed or repaired after a period of abnormal and unhealthy tensions. And, of course, it’s vital that the practitioners of such networking and advocacy aren’t hamstrung by, or expected to rationalise, indefensible realities.

There’s much the United States itself needs to do, because good relations with Egypt are undoubtedly an important American national interest.

But Egypt and its Arab allies should give serious attention to the slow and steady, low-key and high-impact, day in and day out messaging and relationship-building that will be required for Cairo’s perspective to receive a more sympathetic hearing in Washington.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog