John Kerry Egypt Trip: Syria, Palestine Will Be On the Agenda

Don't doubt for a moment that the first overseas tour made by Secretary of State John Kerry will be a listening tour. As indicated from the pre-trip itinerary, each stop will include a host audience that possesses either a "U.S. ally" status of some kind, or a formal U.S. security guarantee. Yet while this list contains stalwart allies, it will be troubled Egypt that will prove to be the most notable stop on Secretary Kerry’s trip.

On the surface, there is little reason to assume this. With the exception of Egypt, virtually every other country on Kerry’s tour has an active stake in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Unlike its European and Gulf State counterparts, Egypt’s relationship with the United States in the post-Mubarak era has devolved from one of mutual allies to a largely transactional one. Furthermore, Egypt differs from the rest of Kerry’s stops in that it is experiencing a profound political crisis; one being overseen by a democratically-elected Islamist president to boot.

Why then might Egypt be the most notable stop on Secretary Kerry’s trip? There are at least two reasons: Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Syria:

Syria will factor large into Secretary Kerry’s trip to Egypt, in large part because it is there where he is scheduled to meet with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Araby. One might be tempted to dismiss this happenstance on the grounds that the Arab League headquarters is located in downtown Cairo. A meeting between the Arab League Secretary-General and the American Secretary of State in Egypt would be about as groundbreaking as the two meeting in Washington D.C.

Yet, there are two reasons why this meeting will be different.

First, it will come on the heels of a new policy shift by the Obama administration, formally announced by Kerry in Rome today, of providing direct civilian and (for now) non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition.

Second, it will be the first meeting of an American diplomat with Al-Araby since last week’s announcement where he, alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, openly voiced for the first time their joint optimism that a genuine political dialogue between the warring factions in Syria was at hand.

Given the timing of the trip as well as the circumstances surrounding it, it is more than likely that the most substantive (and dare I say interesting) of Kerry’s conversations during this trip will occur in Cairo.           

Arab-Israeli Conflict:

Given the seriousness of Egypt’s economic challenges, it would seem very unlikely that President Morsi would go out of his way to stir things up with Israel. Then again, stranger things have happened.

What makes this otherwise unlikely scenario plausible is the recent news, and aftermath, of the apparent torture and death of 30 year-old Palestinian prisoner and father of two Arafat Jaradatwhile in Israeli custody. Should a third intifada break out in the West Bank, a scenario that is becoming increasingly likely, it is far from clear whether or not Egypt would play a constructive role in the matter.

When one considers the Palestinian Authority’s hard fought and newly acquired legitimacy, it would be hard for President Morsi to simply look the other way and retain his Islamist credentials at home. At the present time, President Morsi is in no position to sacrifice his political capital, especially for the sake of Israel and the United States. A third intifada would not only put an exorbitant amount of pressure on Morsi to stand up to Israel, it would also provide Morsi a convenient rallying cry with which to galvanize the Egyptian public and stabilize the country’s internal politics around his leadership.

It remains to be seen what will come of Secretary Kerry’s visit to Egypt. One thing is for certain: it will not be boring.  

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Jonathan Tkachuk

Jonathan received his M.A. in Diplomacy (Concentration in Counter Terrorism) from Norwich University and his B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University. An independent professional, Jonathan resides in Northern Virginia.

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