By Mada Masr –
When United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf sat down with Mada Masr for an interview on October 13 during her visit to Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry had just announced its vote in favor of a United Nations resolution to condemn Russia’s move to annex Ukrainian territory.
It was a feather in the cap for US officials, who have been pressuring countries to fall in line with the strong anti-Moscow stance that Washington DC has adopted alongside a bevy of sanctions on the Kremlin.
“We were very gratified to see Egypt show broad consensus at the United Nations General Assembly on this stand on sovereign nations’ fundamental right not to have their territories annexed the way Russia has attempted to do,” Leaf told Mada Masr.
However, as with the many areas in which Egyptian and American interests coincide that Leaf discussed with Mada Masr – ranging from human rights and economic support from the global power to foreign policy – Egypt’s position on Russia is a complicated affair and does not fall directly in line with US directives.
Egypt has substantial economic ties with Russia. The two largest points of cooperation include Russia’s state-owned Rosatom’s undertaking of the construction of a nuclear power station at Dabaa, a project worth at least US$26 billion, and a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, the construction of which was set to begin in 2022 and continue over a 13-year period.
Egyptian officials have previously told Mada Masr that Cairo is trying to take proactive steps to ensure it doesn’t get left out in the cold as geopolitical relations undergo a reconstitution in light of the war in Ukraine, while also finding ways to ensure its strategic relationship with Russia continues.
To this end, Egypt has made several moves to accommodate Russia, raising Western eyebrows in the process. On July 24, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Cairo. On the same day, according to a report by Bloomberg, a cargo of Russian oil barrels landed in Egypt’s Hamra oil terminal on the Mediterranean coast, suggesting that this was an alternative route that allowed Russian oil exports to circumvent looming Western sanctions.
“These acts are often taken by private actors, and we go after them,” Leaf said. As for Lavrov’s visit to Cairo, Leaf added, “It is a sovereign decision by countries whether to waste their time listening to his propaganda.”
Leaf did not confirm whether US President Joe Biden will come to Egypt to attend the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties that will be held in Sharm el-Sheikh next month, stating that the White House has not made any official statements in that regard yet. On October 7, the Washington Post reported that Biden will attend COP27, amid speculation from political sources and government officials in recent months about his visit’s political significance for the Egyptian leadership, the pledges he will make at the convention, and the conditions predicating his arrival.
In mid-September, the US administration withheld $130 million of its $1.3 billion in annual foreign military aid to Egypt due to human rights concerns. Meanwhile, initial reports said that Washington will release $75 million out of the total $300 million portion of foreign military aid that is put under congressional oversight to Egypt, in acknowledgement of improvements with regard to the release of political detainees.
However, Leaf clarified that while the secretary had certified the release of the funds, “there was a disagreement by a member of the senate, and essentially the clock ran out at the end of the fiscal year. The discussion continued to the end, but the senator exercised a hold on the money.”
More broadly, Leaf said that she had a “frank” discussion with Egyptian interlocutors during her visit about the cuts and the associated human rights concerns.
“I won’t get into details of private conversations I had, but there are high-profile detainees who are the subject of attention, not just in Washington, but across Europe. There is also the larger issue of pretrial detention. Those who make up the bulk of pretrial detention are, by Egypt’s own account, people who have not committed any violent crimes,” Leaf said.
Leaf noted that the US has given its full backing to Egypt’s request for an International Monetary Fund Extended Fund Facility loan, citing full cognizance of “the stresses and strains on the Egyptian economy.” Egypt has been in negotiations with the IMF since the start of this year, with the volume of the loan and its conditions yet to be agreed upon. On Sunday morning, Finance Minister Mohamed Maiet announced that Egypt and the IMF agreed on the technical details of the new loan package, which will now be subject to final approval by the international financing institution’s executive council.
“We would rather see countries with difficulties go to lenders and institutions that have transparent and well-regulated arrangements, rather than being cornered into giving up part of the national infrastructure,” Leaf said, in reference to a question Mada Masr asked about Egypt potentially turning to Chinese financial support and debt swap deals.
Beyond Russia and international financing, Leaf also touched upon several areas of overlapping foreign policy interest.
Leaf signaled out for praise the “critical role” Egypt has played on the Israel-Palestine front.
“When we have seen an uptake in activities by Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, Egypt’s mediation has been paramount.” She added that there is also appreciation for ongoing discussions from Egypt and Jordan with the Palestinian Authority about the return to negotiations. “Egypt having good relations with Israel helped in the confidence building,” Leaf said.
Leaf also welcomed the recent rapprochement between Qatar and Egypt, saying that when she came back to government last year, she was struck by how much discord there had been within the Gulf. Sisi traveled to Doha in September for the first time since he came to power in 2014. A range of political, security, and government sources who spoke to Mada Masr framed the warming ties between Egypt and Qatar partially as a reaction to “a growing sense of frustration” from Egypt’s more traditional Gulf ally, the UAE, given the compromises imposed by the latter in exchange for political and economic support.
Commenting on these dynamics, Leaf said, “There was a move by the [US] administration a year and a half ago to foster reconciliation within the Gulf family, and that opened doors.” She added that she spoke to a group of Qatari and Emirati officials who said that both countries “keenly prioritize Egypt’s security and stability.”
During her visit, Leaf also addressed the Libyan situation and clarified that while there is a diversion over Egypt’s stance on the UAE and Turkey-backed head of the Libyan Government of National Unity, Abdul Hamid Dbaiba, “there is a commonality on strategic objectives.” Leaf added, “We politely disagree [with Egypt’s stance on Dbaiba], but we don’t think that this is ultimately the decisive factor. The end game is getting the 3 million who registered to vote the opportunity to elect a unified government for the first time in a decade.”
Egypt has been throwing its weight behind Dbaiba’s rival, Fathi Bashagha, who heads a parallel government in the east. Libyan presidential and parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed due to ongoing rivalries and divergences in supporting foreign countries’ alliances.
“We will find a way to leverage our different views. I told Egyptian officials that we see a responsibility to get as many of us, the foreign countries that have an interest in Libya, aligned so that [special representative for the secretary general in Libya Abdoulaye] Bathily can do his work without the interference of Libyans bringing one of their foreign benefactors or of foreign governments intruding for an agenda that doesn’t align with what Abdoulaye is trying to achieve,” Leaf said. “We were clear with Dbaiba that we don’t view his government as having indefinite legitimacy and that he must actively be part of the UN-facilitated process.”