Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to Cairo, Egypt

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Cairo, Egypt
September 13, 2014


MODERATOR: (In progress) – the Secretary’s trip to Cairo, Egypt. While he’s there, he’ll be meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Elaraby, with President al-Sisi, and with Foreign Minister Shoukry.

There are four major topics of discussion while we’re there. They include, of course, ISIL and our efforts to continue to build a global coalition. As you all know, Foreign Minister Shoukry was in Jeddah. He’ll be in Paris on Monday and New York the following week, so there’ll be a continuation of discussion of that issue and our efforts there, Gaza and our ongoing coordination with the Egyptians on the cease-fire and work – our efforts to work towards both parties coming back to Cairo for negotiations.

Libya, we can talk more about this, certainly, but this has been one of the – actually been one of the bigger topics of discussion during the meetings over the last couple of days, our efforts to work towards a political solution there, and we expect it’ll be a topic today.

And then finally, of course, human rights issues, which the Secretary brings up at every opportunity – the arrests and the ongoing detention of journalists and other NGO workers and the need for Egypt to take additional steps toward democratic reform.

So since we have limited time, we thought we’d go straight to questions.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I just wanted to ask on – is it on? Okay. I just wanted to ask, on the coalition thing, what do you really want to hear from Egypt? What’s the main thing you think that – you can’t hear? Okay. Is that better?

MODERATOR: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. So what’s the main thing you want to hear from Egypt? What is the role that you would like them – to see them playing in the coalition? And is that likely to be something that they can talk about and really explain today?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Well, I think we mentioned yesterday that – I mean, Egypt is essentially the intellectual heart of the Arab world, so one of the issues is to have their religious institutions speak out against ISIL, speak out against extremism, to have the imams talk about it in Friday sermons, and to otherwise sort of increase the volume on this message. Again, I think they’ve been doing that, the Sheik Al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti, but since their message is carried throughout the Arab world, that’s very important.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) in terrorist financing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Same, yeah. The – and the Egyptians are concerned about foreign fighters. They have some there and we have seen some return to Egypt and transit Egypt. That’s been an issue that has certainly aggravated Egypt’s domestic terrorism problem, so we’ll want to discuss that with them as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would only add that a component of our ISIL – anti-ISIL coalition strategy is integrating Iraq further with its neighbors and with the region, and again, Egypt as sort of a standard-bearer in the Arab world can play an important role in that. And that can mean anything from enhancing political contacts with Baghdad – although Egypt, unlike a lot of countries, has maintained an embassy in Baghdad throughout the post-war period – but also establishing military-to-military contacts with the Iraqi security forces and intel-sharing and those sorts of things. There are a range of ways in which they can both further the anti-ISIL effort and further the integration of Iraq with the region, which is a component of that strategy.

QUESTION: What do you think the Egyptians want in Libya? And does that square with what you want in Libya?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, they want stability and they want safety on their western border, which is – so – but this has been a topic of focus of Secretary Kerry’s visit both in these discussions here in Turkey and bilats in Jeddah and will be a discussion here. And he’s looking toward a General Assembly – a meeting at the General Assembly with the neighbors and the UN and many other – and a number of others to discuss how we can go – all go forward together with the neighbors on a cease-fire arrangement. So he is trying to – again, he has been broadly sending this message that the first priority in Libya is a cease-fire, that it’s up to the Libyans, that foreign nations should not intervene except to promote a cease-fire in Libya, and this is going to be one of the Secretary’s priorities at the General Assembly.

MODERATOR: And there will be a meeting that they’ll – at the General – at UNGA that the Secretary will participate in, that the Egyptians will – and neighboring countries will participate in. So they’ll certainly talk about that today and preparations for that leading into New York.

QUESTION: I was wondering if we could just pull all of that together in terms of – look, the Egyptians are looking for – obviously, they know that ISIL is important and they want to help with the coalition, but I think the Egyptians and some in the Gulf feel that this shouldn’t just be an anti-ISIL strategy, that even as you go after ISIL kind of militarily in the short term, it needs to be a more kind of whole-of-region approach, and some have suggested that their participation in the coalition would be conditioned on your assurances that this is going to be broader than just ISIL. So could you talk about that a little bit?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Nobody – none of the participants in Jeddah have ever put a condition like that, and I think in Jeddah, there was broad consensus – yes, of course, there’s a broader terrorist threat in the Middle East, and many of these countries like Egypt have their own problems like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Sinai. But I think there’s general – and there’s general recognition that ISIL is a clear and present danger to all of them because it’s become an incubator, and as I mentioned, it’s pressing up against the Jordanian and Saudi borders as well.

So I think there’s recognition that, yes, this is the most urgent threat they face, and if they can’t help dismantle this, it’s going to feed into all their domestic terrorist problems. Again, I think there was broad consensus on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I guess I would just add that we are certainly very sensitive to and supportive of Egypt’s domestic counterterrorism challenges and work with them very closely on those issues, both on a military-to-military level and on a political level, and we have for many years. But I would come back to [Senior State Department Official One]’s point, which is that the most acute threat facing the region – and I think there’s a consensus around this at this point – is the threat posed by ISIL which crosses borders, and if it isn’t stopped, would increasingly expand beyond borders. So that is why not just Egypt, but all countries in the region need to focus not just on whatever parochial counterterrorism and other issues that they need to resolve, but also this broader threat to the region and beyond.

MODERATOR: Can I add just one thing? And not to put too fine a point on this, but since some of you just asked me about this, we designated ABM in April in part because we recognize that they have this extremist threat in Egypt, but also we informed them just a couple of weeks ago we were delivering the Apaches, and so that obviously is also part of our effort to help them address the extremist threats that they face. So just – working with them on this coalition does not negate or does not mean – we’re not taking our foot off the gas pedal with our effort to help them on their other threats.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], you mentioned the foreign fighters. Do you have kind of a ballpark figure on how many foreign fighters there might be in Egypt? And [Senior State Department Official Two], you talked about establishing military-to-military contacts. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I actually don’t have a number for Egypt, and frankly, it’s one of the few countries I don’t think we – at least I haven’t seen a ballpark figure. But even when I was there, we saw Egyptians going into the Syria effort and we saw others transiting. That was also a very common phenomena. And on occasion – this is why ISIL is so dangerous – they would stop off and sort of lend their professional skills to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. So the whole thing was basically – this was becoming – these terrorist groups were beginning to cooperate.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And on the military-to-military context, I mean, I would leave the exact content of what that would entail to military experts and Defense officials. But what I would say is that in many regions of the world, part of how we try to build a climate of stability and security among our partners is to encourage them to work together on a military-to-military level. And it involves everything from sort of sharing of best practices to actual joint exercise. And we believe that those contacts are forces for, again, stability, security, clear communication and understanding not just in the Middle East, but beyond that as well in regions like Asia and Latin America and elsewhere, so --

QUESTION: Can I clarify – sorry, guys, but can you just clarify – when you were talking about that some of the people going into Syria from – through Egypt were stopping and helping kind of with ABM, is that like a huge, acute problem or it’s just kind of anecdotal?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Episodic and anecdotal, but still it was – got everybody’s attention.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I mean, I’d just say there’s probably not a country in the region that has not in some way, with some of its citizens, have been traveled to to participate in the ISIL fight. So it’s certainly not unique to Egypt in that way.

QUESTION: Apropo Egypt and Libya very – just very quickly. The UAE carried out airstrikes in Libya staged out of Egypt without any consultation whatsoever with the United States. What does that say about – you’re talking about mil-to-mil relations. There’s no relation – what does that say about the state of your relationship with the Egyptian military and Egyptian Government? Are you going to discuss that when you’re there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We issued a joint statement (inaudible) about our policy and intervention (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Michael, we don’t – we’re not going to get into that sort of detail. We issued a statement about our policy, about nonintervention in Libya. The Secretary has been clear throughout this trip and he’ll be clear in Egypt that that’s our policy, nonintervention in Libya’s affairs. He was crystal-clear in these meetings here in Turkey about that as well. And the idea is to look forward to the General Assembly where we can get together with the neighbors and the other major players and hope to develop some kind of map for a cease-fire.

QUESTION: The question wasn’t about nonintervention. It was the fact that the Egyptians and the UAE didn’t consult with the United States on this. What does that say about the relationship – before they acted?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, Michael, our policy is nonintervention. I think all the countries in the region are well aware of that, and we’re trying to look forward to the General Assembly.

QUESTION: Hi. You say the Secretary’s going to raise human rights issues. Will that include political reform, civil society transition to democracy more generally? And what are the specific benchmarks we’re pushing, and are you seeing any progress on that front? Doesn’t look like there’s been a lot.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This has always been high on the Secretary’s agenda, and the issues will be the continued incarceration of secular activists. It’ll be the registration of NGOs, which has now been temporarily delayed. It’ll be the new NGO laws. Those are of great concern in the United States. It’ll be the release of the Al Jazeera and other journalists. There’s a list, and yes, there’s not been a lot of recent progress. He’ll also raise the parliamentary elections and encourage them to set a date as soon as possible.

MODERATOR: All right. (Inaudible) last one (inaudible).

QUESTION: On Gaza, what do you think the negotiations today are going to focus on? And do you think this is eventually going to lead to a broader move back to peace process negotiations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, you said negotiations today?

QUESTION: Sorry, the talks today to try --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Our conversations?

QUESTION: Our conversations, yeah. Sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, okay. No, no. No problem. Look, we’re – we’ve been quite public about our support for the cease-fire effort that the Egyptians have brokered and for their role in bringing that about. We think that was a very positive development, obviously, in de-escalating what was a very violent conflict. Since then, there have not been extensive discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians on these issues. I think our view is that we would like them to be sitting down and talking about how to get – how to reach a longer-term, sustainable cease-fire as soon as they are able to do that. But I’m not going to speculate about when that might occur, but our position is that it should happen.

QUESTION: And the cease-fire right now is just kind of like (inaudible), there’s no set deadline?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It’s an open-ended cease-fire, and for the most part, it’s been respected, we would say, by both sides.

MODERATOR: And to answer your other question, both sides have spoken very publicly about what they would like to see as a part of the negotiations. So obviously, that’s not for us and the Egyptians to negotiate, but certainly, I’d point you to comments by the Israelis on their desire to see disarmament. Obviously, the other side would like to see greater economic opportunity, opening of border crossings, fishing rights. So those are the issues they’d like to see on the table, and so it’s an issue of determining the agenda and how to move forward.

All right. Thanks, everyone.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MODERATOR: On to Cairo.