Election Will Allow US-Egypt Relations to Move Forward: Veteran US Diplomat

Longstanding political allies, Egypt-US bilateral relations have increasingly come into the limelight in the post-revolution period, most significantly following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last summer amid mass protests against his rule. Ahram Online gains further insight in an exclusive interview with US Ambassador Stuart Holliday, just days before Egypt’s presidential election.

Holliday is currently the President and CEO of Meridian International Centre, a public diplomacy institution in Washington aligned with the US State Department and other US and international authorities. Among his endeavours, the US diplomat served as US Ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the United Nations (2003-2005), prior to which he was Coordinator (Assistant Secretary) of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programmes and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. From 2000 to 2001, he was Special Assistant to the President and Associate Director of Presidential Personnel at the White House.

Ambassador Holliday has a Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a Master’s from the London School of Economics. Holliday is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is currently co-Chairing the Centre for the Study of the Presidency and Congress’ Strengthening America’s Future Initiative, amongst other political initiatives.

Ahram Online: How do you perceive current US-Egyptian diplomatic relations?

Ambassador Stuart Holliday: While different, it is little bit like the situation that we had with France in the wake of the UN resolution: it seemed worse than it actually was. It seems really bad because of misperception on both sides. Misperception by Egyptians that the US didn’t support the public with the demonstrations against [Mohamed] Morsi’s government and the perception is that we want to validate the process side of democracy rather than validate the true intent and will of the people. The misperception on the American side is that Egyptian developments are simply a repeat of previous military governments that have come in and that a civil society hasn’t advanced.

Both leaders in Egypt and the US that I spoke to understand that Egypt needs to develop on its own, and develop a political centre that can be a visible political leadership together with the business community. For example, like those of AMCHAM in Cairo, whose leaders have tried to provide this glue. Perceptions are worse than the reality – the underpinning ties between the two countries are there. I am hopeful that the elections will at least allow us to change the dynamic of the situation to strengthen institutions for the economy and also for the tourism sector.

AO: Though long-term allies, many (US/Egyptian observers) believe the relationship is at its worst point in history (US diplomats in Cairo have expressed a sentiment of feeling “unwelcome”). What is the reason behind the rupture in diplomatic ties?

SH: Historically, this is not the worse period, I believe we have had other trying periods. Diplomatic relations during [Gamal Abdel-] Nasser’s time were trying, but we gained popular support after the Suez crisis. We then had a very courageous Egyptian leader, [Anwar] Sadat, he brought Egypt and the US back into close relations. But it has been difficult in the last 20 years, illustrated by political upheaval for instance, street demonstrations during the Iraq war, intifada-related demonstrations, so we have faced many challenges before. Thus I cannot say this is the worse period.

There’s a lot of work to do. To make a sweeping assertion you need to look at the bilateral trade balance. We have a free trade agreement and dialogue between our leaders and your leaders. We are simply trying to uphold our values, respective interests, but also Egypt is a very important strategic country in the Middle East and thus good relations are paramount. But it will also take Egypt not blaming the US for problems, as it tries to unlock a system to allow a country that aspires to allow everybody to feel that they have a shared stake in the future. There needs to be less finger pointing on both sides. We need to advance cooperation.

AO: As displayed during the Economic Forum conference in Cairo, many Egyptian dignitaries accuse the US of: interfering in domestic policy, biased media coverage, unjustly withholding vital military equipment, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s political bid and providing US asylum to its members. What is your reaction to such accusations?

SH: People even in this country (the US) complain of media bias. In a free society the media has its own view on things. The narrative is obviously focused on human rights and judicial processes. Obviously it’s harder to cover the slow evolution of the Egyptian public in terms of their shift of view. On one hand, wanting stability and more civil rights, stability is not getting as much attention as the other side.

On the military side, I think that was more of a symbolic irritant. If you look at the military relationship, there are certain provisions in our law that require an understanding when there is a new government, an understanding of what it represents. But I do think there is true concern on the US’s part, in that the balance between stability and security may have an adverse effect in part on the optimism and energy behind the Arab Spring. Thus I think US will be keeping an eye not from standpoint of interference but to ensure democratic developments ensue.

What struck me is that in Egypt the use of the word NGO was seen as a sweeping negative. There are lots of NGOs than can play a role that don’t have a direct involvement in terms of electoral or political campaigns but can help institution building, training leadership, capacity building, help entrepreneurs, higher education, cooperation, more delegations and more business opportunities.

Whilst engaging with leaders in the US, people like Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy understand the US and its political landscape and is making sure Egypt is understood by Congress, the executive branch and the think tank community. It may not be on the top of their minds here, but there needs to be constant dialogue.

AO: US criticism last year was linked to Morsi’s deposal as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Does the US still maintain that Morsi should have remained president and finished his four-year term?

SH: That’s a difficult question because I believe there are two realties here. I think that one reality understands that a great many people weren’t happy with the Morsi government and were concerned about its actions, understanding that millions of Egyptians took to the streets and were hoping for a more open, transparent government. The US also recognises that those people are currently looking for a change and would like many cases to support a civilian government led by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

The US has always had a policy of dealing with outcomes of elections and having to deal with those elected by their people, whether they like them or not. It is an exaggeration to say the US supported the Muslim Brotherhood. It supports free and fair elections. That’s why it is important that the upcoming elections are open and free as possible, an opportunity for a new conversation. There is a chance many won’t vote and this is a pivotal moment for Egypt. My view is that there may be people (in the US) who will still feel Morsi shouldn’t have been removed the way he was, but most leaders in the policy-making community recognise the importance of moving on to the next chapter.

AO: Previously the US was extremely critical of the interior ministry’s clearance of pro-Morsi demonstrations last year. What is the US’ current perspective?

SH: From the current perspective, there is a strong premium placed on freedom of speech here, so the issue is through US eyes: people should be allowed to express their views without fears of censorship or retribution, while also understanding the line in terms of inciting further violence.

While having respect for freedom of speech, the US has a longer threshold of allowing that kind of political expression than what takes place in Egypt. In Egypt, there is a concern that violence may affect how free people will feel to express themselves in an environment. The interior ministry ideally is only brought in when there is a genuine security threat. There needs to be checks and balances on the national security system.

AO: The Muslim Brotherhood has been re-listed a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government, a classification which used to hold true also in the US: why did the US change its stance and how does it classify the organisation today?

SH: The US probably viewed the Brotherhood as similar to the evolution of its views, for example, regarding Ireland, when the IRA split and became in effect a non-violent political expression in a party called Sinn Fein. There was a peaceful group while the IRA was a terrorist group. So in the case of the Brotherhood, I think the US is sensitive to grouping everybody that supports a particular candidate into that large basket.

AO: Will the US support the next president? Do you think El-Sisi will win? What do you think about his campaign?

SH: I think that the US will likely move forward in recognising the winner of the elections, if they are deemed fair elections and if there is no discouraging people from voting and everybody has the opportunity to cast a ballot. I think the campaign has been interesting; it appears that El-Sisi is trying to connect with his citizens, and has met citizens and just the other day talked about his willingness to step down if there are popular demonstrations against him, implying he is in tune with people and listening to them.

Also, from experience a few weeks ago during my visit to Egypt, El-Sisi appears to have become a charismatic figure among certain segments of society, including older and middle class Egyptians. The concern is consensus building; ideally Egypt is looking for a leader to allow civil society to develop and emerge. This is critical and can take some time. The answer isn’t foreign interference – the answer is that political leaders [need to] form different generations to be willing to go into government and play that role to build a moderate political centre. That’s what people in the US want to see.

AO: Will US aid and military assistance resume as in the past?

SH: I think they are on a trajectory to resume. However, I do believe there is going to be a close monitoring of the direction the country takes in terms of the kinds of liberties that are important, the kind of society it is willing to support with respect to large scale military assistance. But certainly US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has good relations with his counterparts and there is going to be a fairly healthy internal debate within national and security policy walls, though the cost of not retaining ties would be far greater.

AO: How do you foresee the future for Egypt-US diplomatic ties?

SH: I am cautiously optimistic.

AO: What recommendations do you have for the Egyptian state so as to ease diplomatic tensions between the two countries?

SH: Communication is very important – more of it at different levels and greater appreciation for the point of view of the other side. Both need to take into consideration the context of why a decision was taken. Without that context, small decisions can be exploited for major shifts in policy or statements.

I think that for many years, the US worked with Mubarak, during which time US aid was not helping other areas as much was focusing on the military. It is important is that the US invests in the country’s youth, building education investment opportunities and getting in context how the security picture affects tourism. But at the end of the day, we have shared interests. Although we are going to disagree, the key thing is to focus on those.

Egypt needs to understand that in US human rights, free press and popular participation are always important issues. These principles should be understood as a part of the relationship and not as a threat towards the relations. I think the US needs to understand that the political framework in Egypt is highly complex. While we must hold to our core values, we can’t freeze-frame our policy. The US needs to be nimble and connected to interest of Egyptians.

At end of day, if the Egyptian government has its people’s interests as its primary concern, although it might not be necessarily the US’ recipe for democracy, it will hopefully give people hope and opportunity in a country like Egypt with the demographic challenges of a very large youth population. There will be no turning back the clock. We need to focus on how we can balance our values, strategic interests and the application of our policies.

Source: Ahram Online

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