Secretary of State Antony Blinken jetted to the Mideast to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this week to thank him for his country’s role in the current Israel-Hamas ceasefire. “We’ve had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly,” Blinken said, following a Cairo meeting with Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and intelligence head Abbas Kamel.
The Cairo meeting was a testament to Egypt-US relations and an acknowledgement of the ancient country’s role as a Mideast peace broker. It was able to stop the fighting by both of its neighbors, Israel and Gaza, a reminder that Cairo may not make as many headlines as Tehran or Damascus or Jerusalem, but it is still the keystone in the Mideast.
There may well have been larger stakes in the week’s Blinken–Sisi meeting. It could possibly reset what has been President Biden’s critical approach to Egypt based on its poor human rights record. If so, a reset of relations would be a recognition of Mideast reality. The U.S. could not have achieved last week’s ceasefire agreement between Jerusalem and Hamas without Egypt’s intercession. It cannot revive interest in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem without Egypt’s help.
The fact is, Cairo’s importance is forgotten at our peril. In recent years, attention in the region has been focused on Iran, Syria, Yemen, or the Gulf States—the places with live shooting or obscene riches. Egypt is quieter, calmer but still, in many ways, the center of the Arab world.
Short on other Arab countries’ oil riches, the Egyptian economy has been a mess for decades. Its politics have been dominated by Western-leaning strongmen, not an ideal model for the world or one widely emulated when authoritarians like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are pugnacious towards the U.S. But in terms of size, geography, and history, the land of pyramids is still a colossus. At the intersection of the Nile Delta, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea, its ancient culture and its role in shaping modern Christianity isn’t as well remembered as it should be.
Egypt’s catalytic role in the current Israel-Hamas cease-fire is also an historic tribute to one American president’s resolve more than four decades ago and his recognition of Egypt’s vital role.
In March 1979, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, prodded by Jimmy Carter, signed their historic peace treaty. It was that accord which allowed today’s cease-fire negotiations between the two Middle East neighbors and the militant group ruling Gaza to succeed. The treaty was the genesis of all successful diplomacy since: Israel’s peace with Jordan, the transformation of the PLO into the Palestinian Authority, and the Abraham Accords. The dearth of an Israeli-Palestinian solution remains vexing to the world. But without Egypt, the world would likely still be as it was, all Arab states and Palestinian leadership seeking Israeli annihilation.
Carter, 96, is the American leader who brokered that Egyptian-Israeli accord through thirteen days of negotiations at Camp David. It took Sadat’s historic break with the Soviets and unparalleled courage to initiate the peace process. His mission to Israel will go down in history as one of the great risks for peace. It stands in the same league of peacemakers as F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela or Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Like Yitzhak Rabin, Sadat paid with his life.
But only the U.S. could have gotten the Egyptian Army veteran and Zionist combatant over the finish line. The Camp David accords signed by Begin and Sadat ended a state of war between the two countries which included four major conflicts since 1948. It broke the Arab mental barrier about dealing with Israel. With it, Egypt became the first Arab nation to recognize the Jewish state.
Carter achieved the historic result thanks to his well-known traits of diligence, religious faith, and political cunning. He accepted personal responsibility for bridging the gap between the two countries. This could not have gotten done through staff or cabinet ministers.
Coaxing the two leaders into the same space and keeping them there ‘til they made peace was a stunning accomplishment, one that Bill Clinton admirably tried to replicate with Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat but, unfortunately, fell short when the Palestinian leader lacked Sadat’s courage to take the deal.
Carter took a risk bringing the two longtime foes together at the presidential retreat and it paid off.
The current ceasefire between Israel and the militant group Hamas might well have not happened had it not been for the relations between Egypt and Israel. The two countries have not had a warm peace as many on both sides of the Suez had hoped. But the military-to-military contacts between Israel and Egypt have remained strong and the treaty survived the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.
Nor would these relations have been possible without Sisi’s personal commitment to the 1979 treaty with Israel. He has made that commitment clear since taking power. Indeed, the Economist magazine has called him “the most pro-Israeli” Egyptian leader ever.
What Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin began with Anwar Sadat has led to years of cold peace, and Sadat’s 1981 assassination, to the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire we have today. It’s something for the 96 year-old American peacemaker down in Plains, Georgia, to take some late-in-life pride in, even as he, like the rest of us, wishes the day would come when the rockets stop firing for good.