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Egypt beyond the Iran nuclear deal

The Iran-West nuclear deal compounds a number of complex and overlapping domestic and regional challenges Egypt faces, political analyst Ahmed Abd-Rabo tells Ahram Online

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 4 Apr 2015
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Photo: Reuters)
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According to political analyst Ahmed Abd-Rabo, the Middle East is set to face one of three scenarios: Islamisation, democratisation or sectarianism.

The first, according to Abd-Rabo, is unlikely due to the lack of innovative policies on the side of Islamist powers and their decline in popularity. The second, he argued, is equally unlikely in view of the strong influence of anti-democratic structures and money.

The scenario of sectarianism in the Middle East seems to Abd-Rabo the most likely as the announced and active feud of Sunnis and Shias deepens amid anxiety in the Saudi-led Sunni camp following the conclusion of a framework agreement between Iran, the leader of the Shia camp, and the West.

This scenario, Abd-Rabo is convinced, is the last thing Egypt would have hoped for and would only strengthen the forces keen to block the emergence of the developed and democractic nation — the core aspiration of the January 25 Revolution.

Worse still, Abd-Rabo explained to Ahram Online in a telephone interview from the United States, where he is conducting research, this scenario would paint Egypt into a corner where it would have to engage in a sectarian religious war it does not subscribe to.

“Egypt is not usually in the business of Sunni-Shia war and since the ascent of [President Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi to power the premise of his foreign policy was to reach out to contrasting political powers and to work within a space of loose coalitions with such powers,” Abd-Rabo argued. El-Sisi, he said, was simultaneously reaching out to Europe and the US while trying to cement ties with the Arab Gulf States and pursuing partnerships with Russia and China.

Today, with effective war in Yemen that is sectarian but ultimately about a battle between the Saudis and Iranians for regional influence, Egypt is no longer in a position to play the game of cojoining contrasting power centres.

“The time has come for Cairo to choose and it cannot procrastinate for long before allying with one side and consequently losing the support of the other,” Abd-Rabo said.

He added that it would be hard to see how Egypt would continue to remain a partner with Russia, which adamantly supports Iran and opposes the war in Yemen on Tehran-supported Houthis, and stay close allies with the Saudis who are leading the war to which Egypt is a party.

Time of decision

Indeed, a few days ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, who headed his country’s delegation to the Arab Summit after the abrupt exit of Saudi monarch King Salman following the summit's inauguration, lashed out at a message El-Sisi, current chair of the summit, read to the Arab congregation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Then this week Beijing informed Cairo of the cancellation of a much-anticipated trip to Egypt by the Chinese president. The trip, according to Chinese diplomatic sources, was cancelled in protest at Egyptian participation in the war in Yemen.

“In principle, it is a good thing in international relations to try to avoid excessive alliances, but in practice this is not easy for Egypt today, especially given its deep reliance on the economic support of Arab Gulf countries,” Abd-Rabo said.

Statements made by Egyptian officials, including El-Sisi himself, and articles printed in the Egyptian press by commentators known to be close to the Cairo authorities promoted the need for political dialogue in Yemen. This message was not picked up by Riyadh, which has been pushing allies in the 10-nation coalition at the war on the Houthis to start ground operations despite the reluctance of most coalition members and the unease of the US.

Meanwhile, it is hard to see how the sectarian aspect of the war can be dampened down, especially with a new deal struck over Iran's nuclear programme and the prospect of Tehran's isolation ending, opening up the region to wider Iranian influence with the consent of the West, Abd-Rabo argued.

It will not be for long, Abd-Rabo said, before the Saudis want to know who is with them and who is not. Consequently, El-Sisi will not have long to procrastinate on an alliance with the Saudis.

“I would even argue that it is inevitable for El-Sisi to side with the Saudis, and this is not about the fact that Egypt is a predominantly Sunni population, but essentially about the very clear fact that since the beginning of his ascent to power, El-Sisi relied on the political and economic support of the Arab Gulf States, especially the Saudis, to establish his rule and in a sense his early legitimacy,” Abd-Rabo argued.

Abd-Rabo spoke to Ahram Online as speculation was increasing over relations between Cairo and Riyadh, especially after an exchange of criticisms between media figures close to ruling quarters on both sides — particularly, Ibrahim Eissa and Gamal Khashousguie.

This exchange came on the eve of a short-notice visit by the Egyptian army Chief of Staff (and brother-in-law of President El-Sisi), Mahmoud Hegazi, to Riyadh Friday, hours after breaking news of the Iran-West framework agreement.

“Egypt is still far too economically dependent on the Arab Gulf and El-Sisi knows very well that if the economy declines further his claim to fame as the president who would bring back stability to the country, and maybe even the strength of his rule, could be compromised or challenged,” argued the Abd-Rabo.

What price Egypt's Gulf alliance?

A full alliance with the Saudis amid a growing sense of regional sectarianism would not come without a price, Abd-Rabo argues.

The bill, which Abd-Rabo fears would be rather long, would almost certainly include expected participation of ground troops in an operation that the Saudis and Yemen's Sunni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi are pushing for.

There is also the cost of a decline in relations with countries opposed to Saudi action in Yemen that could have provided Egypt with support, whether in technology, like Russia, or promising new markets, like China.

Moreover, Abd-Rabo adds, full alliance with the Saudis would have implications on Egypt’s regional choices, including the handling of the Syria situation where the new Saudi rulers have shown that like their predecessors they are determined to eliminate the chances for political survival of Bashar Al-Assad. This at a time when Cairo had been exploring inroads with Damascus and when Al-Assad said in a press interview with the official Russian news agency last week that he was hoping that relations with Egypt would pick up.

On the regional front, Cairo would also have to accept that in its pursuit of a Sunni coalition to face up to Iran and its allies in several Arab countries, Saudi Arabia decided to call on Turkey for help. Egypt would ultimately therefore have to cement a second bitter truce following the diplomatic ceasefire struck with Qatar in the last few days under Saudi influence.

On the home front, Abd-Rabo argued, there would be a price that Egypt would need to pay to keep a strong alliance with the Saudis, related to the standoff between the ruling authorities in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood whose elimination had been a joint objective of El-Sisi and Riyadh under late King Abdullah.

“The new king of Saudi Arabia issued an immunity that allowed for the release of certain Saudi clergy who are sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood and who had been jailed under the previous rule,” Abd-Rabo said.

Easing pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood, even for pragmatic reasons, would not be to the liking of some domestic quarters who supported El-Sisi. “He might fight himself caught between a rock and a hard place,” Abd-Rabo said.

Accommodating Islamists to a certain level would not just concern the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but would also impact on Egypt’s immediate and chaos-wrecked neighbour, Libya, where Cairo has been hard at work to eliminate the political participation of Islamists.

Narrowing options

These shifting regional dynamics are happening, Abd-Rabo reminds, while Egypt is not only faced with economic but also serious political challenges at home and in the region.

At home, away from the struggle with Islamists and rights activists, El-Sisi is missing one deadline after the other in relation to parliamentary elections, losing members of what was broadly called the 30 June coalition as democracy advocates within this camp become increasingly frustrated if not outright disappointed.

“Moreover, the Salafists — who are El-Sisi’s partners since the onset of the political process started on 30 June — cannot accept anything short of full-fledged announced hostility to the Shia,” Abd-Rabo reminded.

On the regional front, El-Sisi, “who has gone far too far in his battle with Hamas," is no longer an obvious inter-Palestinian go-between. And with dismal prospects for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks, Egypt is without its past diplomatic cachet as the facilitator of the Middle East peace process.

“El-Sisi needs the economic help promised (during the investment conference held in March) in Sharm El-Sheikh by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. He also needs the generous investments that the business communities of these countries could provide. And of course, Abd-Rabo reminds, he does not need anything to upset the prospects of millions of Egyptians who work in these countries, with Saudi Arabia being host to around two million Egyptians.

The next two or three years (in other words, the remainder of the first term of El-Sisi) cannot be expected to unfold without continued — and possibly increased — dependence on the Saudis and consequently inevitable, even if unwanted, implication in a sectarian war that masks a deeper battle over regional power, Abd-Rabo suggests.

Egypt has not reacted officially to the framework agreement between the West and Iran cautiously acknowledged by the Saudis and Turks and overtly opposed by Israel.

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