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Shoukry’s DC charm offensive complicated by human rights concerns

In a bid to shore up bilateral relations unsettled by Cairo’s ambivalent stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to the American capital of Washington DC on Monday.

The agenda for Egypt’s top diplomat included meetings with his counterpart Secretary of State Antony Blinken, other officials and various think tanks that hold sway in the capital.

Shoukry’s visit comes a little over two weeks after his meeting with Blinken in Israel alongside counterparts in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

However, according to informed sources and government officials who spoke to Mada Masr, the uphill battle that any charm offensive Shoukry was intending to launch to resolve US concerns over Egypt’s position on Russia was only further complicated by long standing concerns US officials have had over the human rights record of one of the largest recipients of American military and economic funding. Nonetheless, the foreign minister will try to ease tensions by highlighting shared policy interests and potential further military cooperation.

A few days before Shoukry’s visit, US Ambassador to Egypt Johnathan Cohen ended his mission in Cairo in what informed political and diplomatic sources say was an uneasy moment in view of Egypt’s initial hesitation to side with the US position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“During his last round of talks with Egyptian officials, Cohen shared Washington’s unease over Egypt’s hesitation to denounce the invasion of Ukraine,” says one informed source.

Cohen’s sentiment is widely shared in DC, according to a government source who spoke to Mada Masr ahead of Shoukry’s trip.

The Egyptian embassy in Washington, the source says, had shared with Cairo the unease that has been expressed by Congress members from both the Republican and Democratic parties about Egypt’s assumed alliance with Putin.

“It is not just in the official quarters but on Capitol Hill, in the media and across the think-tank community,” they say.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Cairo has shown unmasked apprehension in denouncing the aggression. During the early days of the war, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi called Russian President Vladimir Putin. A statement issued by the president’s office in Egypt said that the two presidents discussed “enhancing strategic cooperation” in view of their “historical relations.”

The call with Putin prompted US frustration over Egypt’s hesitation to support Washington in its stand-off with Moscow over Ukraine, according to the informed source.

The US put off scheduled joint plans with Egypt in March, including some military activities, the source says.

On March 24, Egypt voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly non-binding resolution that demanded the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and an immediate halt to the war. Last week, Egypt abstained during a UN Human Rights Council vote on the suspension of the membership of Russia in the international body.

According to the government official, during his visit to the US capital, Shoukry will be trying to dispel the worries of “all those concerned,” especially the legislators on both sides of the aisle, about Egypt’s “solid commitment to the US.”

“We have made it clear through our talks with our American friends that we do not endorse the war on Ukraine, but we also don’t want to have a fall-out with Russia, who is a key partner for us,” the official added.

Egypt was not the only Arab state that declined the wish of the US to issue a statement to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Cairo, the government official added, is hoping that during his talks in Washington this week, Shoukry will be able to ease out the tension with the US just as UAE’s de facto ruler Mohamed bin Zayed did during a long meeting with Blinken in Morocco last month on the sideline of the US Secretary of State’s visit to the North African country.

However, the informed source says that, unlike the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Egypt does not have the oil wealth that will prompt the US to accommodate its defiance.

The groundwork Cairo was trying to lay ahead of Shoukry’s visit also faced obstacles.

Last week a delegation of the American Chamber of Commerce was in Washington on a “door-knocking” mission to ease tension. A source who took part in some of the meetings says that it would be an uphill battle for Egypt to exercise any charm diplomacy at this point.

Egypt’s position on Ukraine is far from the only problem that Shoukry is expected to address during his Washington trip. The human rights situation is expected to pose “a new headache,” according to another government official.

“It is very unfortunate that the death of the researcher has to come up almost on the eve of the Washington visit,” the official tells Mada Masr.

On Sunday, Egypt woke up to the news that Ayman Hadhoud, an economic researcher, had died in early March at a government-run hospital for psychological problems a month after he had been forcibly disappeared by the National Security Agency. The researcher’s death remained undisclosed for a month.

Hadhoud was a member of the higher committee of Reform and Development Party, which is led by Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, a politician with firm in-roads with all security quarters in Egypt and who has assumed a role in US-Egyptian relations.

A public prosecutor statement issued early on Tuesday morning said that Hadhoud was arrested after attempting to force his entry into a Zamalek apartment. Hadhoud was referred to the prosecution, which began investigating him on charges of attempted theft. However, according to the statement, the investigation could not be carried out because he was “incomprehensible.” The prosecution then submitted a request for a court order to place him at Abbasseya Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation.

The statement came out less than 24 hours after the prosecutor ordered an autopsy of the body of Hadhoud to determine the cause of death. The prosecutor’s statement impugned “all allegations” that Hadhoud died due to torture or ill-treatment.

However, the prosecution’s statement did not address several outstanding questions about the researcher’s death, most prominently why news of his death was withheld from his family for a month and why his body was labeled as unidentified and slated for burial in a charity cemetery, despite the hospital’s knowledge of his identity, as confirmed by the patient affairs staff member.

The prosecution’s decision to order an autopsy of Hadhoud’s body came hours before a scheduled meeting between Shoukry and visiting EU Human Rights Commissioner Eamon Gilmore.

In a tweet on his official account on Monday, Gilmore said he was going to discuss human rights matters with the Egyptian government, civil society, Parliament, the National Council For Human Rights, and others.

Three sources with insight into the Shoukry-Gilmore talks say that the European official raised the case of Hadhoud and shared his “genuine concern” over the ability of the Egyptian government to live up to the commitment it took upon itself when it adopted its new human rights strategy last year.

“To be honest we never really believed much of what was written in that document, but we thought that the fact that this so-called strategy came out and the fact that the president of Egypt chose to head the launch himself suggested something might get better,” says a European diplomatic source who spoke to Mada Masr on conditions of anonymity. The source adds that the case of Hadhoud shows that “as our friends in the human rights community in Egypt had suspected all along, this human rights strategy is nothing but a public relations offensive.”

According to a Washington-based informed source, a delegation of MPs to the US capital last year —which was lead by Sadat and Mouchira Khattab, the current chair of the National Human Rights Council — “had a very hard time trying to answer some really specific questions of American officials and legislators on the details of the human rights situation in Egypt.” The source says that it is hard to think that Shoukry would have an easier time, especially after the case of Hadhoud.

According to the same European diplomatic source “it is becoming hard even for Egypt’s best friends anywhere in the world to defend the human rights record of the Egyptian authorities, and it has become hard for anyone to confuse cases like that of Hadhoud with Egypt’s assault against terror groups.”

The Washington-based source says that if Cairo continues to hope that US President Joe Biden will even make a brief appearance as the head of the American delegation to COP27, which Egypt is slated to host, Egyptian authorities will need to consider a long list of demands on the human rights front.

The source says that the US, “like several other Western countries,” has “submitted a list of names of prisoners” that it wishes for Egypt to release “on the assumption that they are political prisoners”.

Western diplomatic sources say that Egyptian officials at all levels insist in their meetings with foreign interlocutors that there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that all prisoners are held upon legal charges.

For their part, government sources say that the authorities have “taken many steps” prior to and after the release of the human rights strategy to end remand detention, end travel-bans and drop legal allegations against “prisoners and accused” who have “a political profile.”

Yet since the launch of the rights strategy in September, a number of high-profile detainees have been handed lengthy prison sentences by emergency courts that are not subject to appeal. These detainees include activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, whose release was called for in an op-ed published by the Washington Post editorial board last week, and lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, who was mentioned explicitly by Blinken the night before he met Shoukry in a press briefing for the release of the State Department’s 2021 Human Rights Report.

However, while these government officials accept that the human rights issue has been one of the key problems in the relationship between the regime in Cairo and the Joe Biden Administration, they argue that “it is not Biden himself but rather the leftist wing of the Democratic party that is putting pressure on Biden” to be firmer on Cairo.

While in Washington, sources informed of his plan say, Shoukry will try to stress the need for the Biden administration to be a lot more engaging of the regime in Cairo to serve the interests of both Egypt and the US.

Shoukry, they add, will stress the need for Cairo and Washington to work hand-in-hand to contain the growing tension between Israel and the Palestinians.

Last month, Egypt and Jordan appealed to Washington and several concerned European capitals to encourage Israel to exercise self-restraint and to prevent Israeli settlers from storming Al-Aqsa Mosque, especially during the month of Ramadan, according to foreign diplomats.

Shoukry is also expected to underline the need for close and systematic high-level consultation between Cairo and Washington over current regional dynamics, especially in view of the growing tension in several Gulf capitals over a possible new nuclear deal between Iran and the West.

According to the Washington-based source, “effectively, Egypt and the US have a lot more to agree than to disagree on.” The two countries, he added, share many views in relation to the requirement of stability in the Middle East. And, he added, they have very profound and stable military cooperation.

Moreover, he says, Shoukry is not expecting to face any hesitation from Washington on the demand of support for a new loan from the IMF that should be “agreed upon sooner rather than later”.

Shoukry, he added, might also hear some renewed US reassurances on the commitment of Washington to support Egypt’s water security. However, he added that it is not at all likely that Washington will be putting any serious pressure on Ethiopia ahead of its anticipated third filling of the reservoir of the GERD this July, again without an agreement with either of the two downstream states, Sudan and Egypt, who have been calling for an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam that is built over the Blue Nile.

Alongside this bevy of foreign policy points of coordination, Shoukry also plans to move forward with Egypt’s purchase of US F-15 fighter jets to shore up relations with the Pentagon, the second government official says.

Former CENTCOM General Frank McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the US planned to approve the sale of the F-15s, which was followed by news that Israel was lobbying the Americans in support of the deal.

While human rights has been flagged as an issue of concern in the past, it has not been a complete stumbling block for Egypt-US relations, with the US$1.3 billion in annual military aid, of which $300 million was attached to certain conditions last year, that the US provides to Egypt largely remaining untouched.

In the most recent spending bill passed in March, the House raised the conditioned portion to $320 million.

In September, the State Department withheld $130 million of the aid until Egypt “affirmatively addresses specific human rights conditions.” While the State Department did not specify what those conditions were, the Washington Post reported at the time that they included ending prosecutions in Case 173, which has targeted NGOs and human rights advocates, and either dropping charges against or releasing 16 individuals whose names have been raised by US officials with the Egyptian government.

However, a $2.5 billion arms sale announced in January is nearly 20 times larger than the amount of withheld aid. In a press briefing to announce the deal, State Department spokesperson Ned Price dodged questions about the sale of arms to Cairo. When a reporter asked, “What is the point of withholding $130 million in foreign military financing when you’re just going to turn around and sell them $2.5 billion in weapons?” Price responded, “If we have anything to add on that … we’ll let you know.”

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