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U.S.-Egyptian Relations: Cooperation and Challenges

Mr. Abderahman Salaheldin, Consul General of Egypt in San Francisco since 2004, addressed ARCE members, CMES members and guests with a very enjoyable, informative and thought provoking message. Throughout his lecture he stressed the strong relationship between the United States and Egypt which has functioned for decades as one of the major stabilizing forces in the Middle East.

Consul Salaheldin opened his remarks with a recounting of his morning in Los Angeles, participating in the opening of a new exhibition at the Getty Museum, featuring information and objects from St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai. He stated firmly that exhibitions such as this one are what matters now in American, Egyptian relations. They provide an entrée into Egyptian history and an outstanding example of cooperation in a world of diverse views and cultural differences. St. Catherine’s is located in the lower Sinai, and is run by Greek Orthodox monks and priest. The monastery holds icons that date from the earliest days of Christianity, as well as from the Middle Ages – a period when icons were being burned in Europe, thus few remain elsewhere. St. Catherine’s also has in it’s library, manuscripts of letters written by the prophet Mohammed to priests and monks at the monastery stressing that peaceful relationship ought to exist between Islam and the other Abrahamic religions. The monastery has a small mosque built by the Fatimids, but which was never used for its intended purpose as it is not oriented so that worshipers may face toward Mecca. The monastery elected to keep the mosque, nonetheless, and it can be visited today. Muslim pilgrims still come to St. Catherine’s to walk where Moses is believed to have walked, and to see the spot where it is believed God appeared to him in a burning bush, as do Jews, Copts, and other Christian pilgrims. All the three religions meet there under the administration of the Greek Orthodox fathers. Consul Salaheldin expressed a fervent wish that it could be thus everywhere, for he strongly believes that only through culture exchange and mutual understanding can peace be guaranteed. He stated that the very best way to overcome cultural divisions is through organizations such as ARCE, who are letting people know about other cultures.

Consul Salaheldin noted that one of the things he is proudest of is having been instrumental in the establishment of a center for American Research at Cairo University, whose mission is to help Egyptian students understand American culture, government, and the multi-ethnic society which is a basic part of American life. A similar center has been established at the American University in Cairo as well. Centers such as these in Egypt and those such as the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and American Research Center in Egypt help to make it possible for people to understand both cultures and appreciate them. He expressed hope to see an Egyptian studies center at UC Berkeley before the end of his present tour in San Francisco. He noted, that it is probably not possible to remove premeditated conflicts, but it is possible to produce a better educated public, which is in the best interest of everyone.

American-Egyptian relations is a good example of how a dialogue exemplifies cooperation and provides a model for others to follow. This relationship has survived many conflicts. During difficult periods, for example, American efforts through UNESCO, to save Egypt’s archaeological treasures in Nubia, kept a positive American image alive in Egypt – at a time when America didn’t have many other credits in Egypt! Even at times of conflict, culture is the best way to stay in touch.

The peace process with Israel was a turning point for Egypt. It became the cornerstone in Egypt-American-Israeli relations. American help is what made the peace with Israel possible. To sustain that peace, the United State must continue to be engaged and impartial. The Egypt-Israeli peace process was intended to be a model for other neighbors. It included 4 tenants;
- A commitment to peace that was irreversible;
- A return to Egypt’s and Israel’s original borders; those of pre 1967 war.
- Security arrangements.
- Normal relations

The peace has survived major challenges such as Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem in 1980, its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the Palestinian INTIFADA in1987. It was Egyptian-American relations that helped keep the Egyptian - Israeli peace intact and made other peace agreements possible. The Egyptian American cooperation in the 1991 war against Iraq gave a clear message that the two countries would act against an aggressor who tried to invade his neighbor, and would work to confirm the rights of the country being invaded. Thus, Egypt, in accordance with the UN Charter and resolutions, was an active participant in the 1st Iraqi war during which Iraq attempted to invade Kuwait,. The 2nd Iraqi war is a horse of a different stripe, however. Egypt disagrees with the United States invasion and has declined to participate. However, it has continued close military-to-military cooperation and political consultation with the US.

The United States and Egypt do have disagreements, but know how to manage them without hurting other aspects of the relationship. The most positive aspect of the relationship between Egypt and the United States is peace. When Egypt declared it would pursue peace with Israel, its membership in the Arab League was frozen, but with Egyptian persistence, the whole Arab world turned around and joined the peace camp.

Peace is turning Egypt to an open, privatized, free enterprise economy. Heretofore, Egypt’s economy was 75% centrally planned and only 25% private. Now the situation has been reversed. 85% of Egypt’s GNP comes from private corporations and institutes that are now privatized. These changes have happened gradually so they are being done successfully. Some in the US might like these changes to happen faster, but Egypt feels strongly that it is its own affair and will decide what works best in Egypt.

In 1979, the US was providing $815 million in assistances each year. Today that number has been phased down to about $400 million, and most is being used to improve education, infrastructure – roads, clean water systems, sewers, telecommunications, transportation, etc. In great part, these improvements have been possible because of American assistance. Today the by-product of US assistance has been to create a demand for US goods in Egypt thus creating jobs in the US to produce those goodts. Egypt is heavily dependent on the US for information technology, and is actively encouraging American companies to do business in Egypt. Egyptians know American designed software very well, providing a market for companies like HP, Microsoft, Intel, etc. who have all established regional centers in Egypt. American corporations are anxious to do business in Egypt. Consul Salaheldin noted that Egypt cannot yet compete with India and Pakistan but they are starting to take the lead in the region and are growing. Economic interaction has established yet another pillar of strength for Egypt. Egypt is beginning to talk now about a Free Trade Agreement with the US and throughout the region.

Egypt’s military cooperation with the US was identified as another model of collaboration, by Consul Salaheldin. The US gives Egypt $1.2B in military credits for training, hardware, etc. each year. This money is used to replace obsolete Soviet inventory and training. The goal is to have a small but highly effective armed service that is involved only in self-defense and peace keeping under authority of the United Nations. Egypt has worked as part of the peace keeping force in Somalia, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere, and is now considering becoming a participant in the peace keeping force in Darfur.
Egypt converses with the US through many channels, such as strategic dialogue and several Joint Economic & Military Commissions. One of the subjects of ongoing discussion addresses the pace of development and the progress toward full democracy. The US wants Egypt to move faster; Egypt feels it must proceed carefully, as it will be the first to be impacted if things go array but it will not be the last. Developments in the Middle East can also impact the US, who should be trying to take away from the radicals good reasons for involvement. Egypt pays special attention to neutralizing radicals on both sides and not allowing them to lead our societies to confrontation. Consul Salaheldin averred strongly that we also cannot allow radicals to establish a theocracy in Egypt. To this end, moderates need to speak out more – about the good things going on between Egypt and the United States. Those involved in study of the culture and its history are in an ideal position to explain to others how to relate the past to the present. Such things as the similarity of religious beliefs needs to be emphasized. Radicals are speaking and publishing hate and lies that are not being refuted by scholars. If no one takes them to task for their hate filled writings and speeches, the uneducated believe what they say to be true.

Egyptians have a deep interest in the US, just as American’s have great interest in Egypt. Consul Salaheldin related that his twin sons as boys used to take their basketball shorts imprinted with the US flag with them to Egypt each year, but never returned with them. Each year they gave them away to a friend who begged to have them. Egyptians don’t hate Americans. They may not agree with everything Americans do, but they don’t hate Americans.
Consul Salaheldin concluded his remarks by stating again that stability in the region is very important. The best way to ensure stability is to neutralize radicals; i.e. not give them an incentive. Occupation of a country is a very good incentive. If we cannot show that there is a good possibility of concluding peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we are all in the same boat where terrorism is involved. Neither Egyptians nor Americans can afford to be shy about speaking out, but at the same time, differences should be dealt with quietly.

— Nancy Corbin