Monday, September 5, 2016

Egypt‏

I recently traveled to Cairo for meetings with Egypt’s president and other prominent government and religious leaders. As my plane approached the country, I watched as the Mediterranean Sea touched the shore of the ancient land. I reflected on this extraordinary part of the world where the West meets the Orient, where the mythical Nile River fans into a delta, bringing life to the vast expanse of barren desert. I thought of historic Egypt as well as the Christian tradition of how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled there after King Herod threatened their lives. I first made this trip decades ago while in college, and with some apprehension awaited to see what I would find today.

Egypt has gone through a major transition in the last five years. The demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square led to a chaotic situation in the streets, followed by the ascendency of the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The subsequent destabilization of the country precipitated a military intervention later followed by the election of current President Sisi. As horrific as things are in the Middle East, it is hard to imagine the consequences if Egypt had lapsed into a spiral of chaos and power struggle. The traditional seat of culture and learning in the Arab world, Egypt has the largest population in the Middle East. It is home to Al-Azhar University—a center of Sunni Islamic learning—and a sizable Christian minority of around ten million. There is significant need of renewal of this important relationship.

My visit with President Sisi lasted two hours. We had an extensive dialogue about security, economic stability, and the value of pluralism in a region where minority rights are under siege. The President emphasized the importance of our military to military relationship and the vulnerability of his country. We talked about Egyptian operations in the Sinai to combat the local brand of ISIS. Egypt also faces severe security issues along its border with Libya. Another unique dynamic in the Middle East is Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel. The peace treaty between the countries has lasted nearly 40 years.

President Sisi attended the United States Army War College as have many other Egyptian military personnel. He has a strong attachment to that experience. When he inquired as to my thoughts regarding a developing problem with another country, I said: “We don’t like spit in our face.” He respected that response.

In light of Egypt’s economic situation, I asked President Sisi about a somber speech he recently gave to his people on the subject. He is clearly laying the groundwork for the absorption of coming difficult economic reforms, a necessary antidote for regaining better economic opportunity. One point of important progress is a major recent expansion of the Suez Canal, funded by the Egyptians, that has largely escaped international recognition.

One of the principles of the United States is to uphold the value of human dignity as the necessary preconditions of an orderly, just and, secure society. When President Sisi was first elected, one of his early public actions was to appear on Egyptian television with the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, and the Grand Imam, a prominent Muslim leader, where he stated: “We are Egyptians.” This simple declaration shatters the default mode of so much of the Middle East where sectarian and tribal allegiance overcomes a healthy national identity.

None of this should gloss over the internal troubles within Egypt. There are plenty of criticisms—the stagnation of the system, the progress on rights, the mayhem of the media, and a host of other difficulties. As in any relationship with a foreign power, there are differing perspectives and points of tension. We will not get everything we expect. But we should also recognize the necessity of this new stability as we progress toward better conditions.

At home we are justifiably anxious about security dynamics here and around the world, especially in the Middle East, where chaos and violence continue to metastasize. The key to resolving this threat, a threat to civilization itself, lies both in tactical military efforts with other nations but also the ongoing development of authentic strategic friendships when possible. Egypt is critical in this regard—and in some ways is a forgotten friend.

About the Author:

Jeff Fortenberry represents Nebraska’s First Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives

He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for the expenditures of the United States government

He serves on three subcommittees with importance for our national and economic security: Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and State and Foreign Operations.

In Congress, Jeff serves as co-chair of the Nuclear Security Working Group, co-chair of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East, and co-chair of the Congressional Study Group on Europe.