The current Egyptian political order began in 2014, a year after the 30 June Revolution that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The new order rectified and supported the process of transition and change that was launched by the January 2011 Revolution. As it struggled to overcome enormous challenges at home, complicated and aggravated by the repercussions of regional crises, the government, under the leadership of President Abdel- Fattah Al-Sisi, who was elected in June 2014, set into motion the largest comprehensive modernisation process that bolstered Egypt’s ability to confront the diverse threats and dangers that loomed over the country.
Terrorism was at once the most dangerous and complex threat during this period. Directly targeting the home front, the danger was spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to avenge itself against state and society for the 30 June 2013 uprising that erupted when Egyptians found themselves prey to a scheme that sought to uproot the nation state founded in 1952 and to put their country and society at the service of a radical ideological organisation with a ruthless and fanatically militant universalist vision. This threat naturally had to take the highest priority especially when it became clear how closely connected it was to major terrorist threats that were on the rise elsewhere in the region, most notably the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and the proliferation of Al-Qaeda affiliates in Libya and elsewhere in the Sahel and Sahara. To complicate matters further, all these countries fall in the spheres of concern of Egyptian national security, which compelled the government to act quickly at the regional and international levels to promote effective and unconventional responses that would achieve crucial gains while sparing the country additional burdens. It should be added that successes in this domain have worked to increase the confidence and respect of Egypt’s regional and international partners, especially those most concerned and influential in transnational threats such as terrorism. These successes naturally extended to other related phenomena such as arms smuggling, money laundering, human trafficking and organised crime.
The Egyptian government applied a strategic vision that enabled it to act effectively within its regional spheres of national security and that incorporated the international geopolitical centres most connected with these spheres. At the African level, the post-2014 order began under very difficult circumstances as Egypt’s membership in the African Union (AU) had been frozen in 2013. As soon as he came to power, President Al-Sisi immediately set into motion a plan of action to reinstate Egypt’s AU membership. His first visit abroad after his election was to attend the AU Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, which immediately worked to bolster Egypt’s continental relations. As he followed through with a range of bilateral exchanges, he reoriented the Egyptian political compass southward, reviving Egypt’s African role in a new modernised edition. Egypt went to great lengths in order to reactivate and innovate frameworks of inter-African cooperation. An early important landmark in this regard was the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development in Africa, established in 2014 as an umbrella organisation for the promotion and organisation of Egyptian-African collaborations. These efforts were soon crowned by Egypt’s election as chair of the African Peace and Security Council in 2016 which, in turn, opened new horizons for Egypt to play a prominent role in conflict resolution and peace-building in Africa.
Another qualitative shift in Egyptian-African relations began in 2019 when Egypt assumed the chair of the African Union. Egypt’s African drive experienced numerous critical successes during this period. For example, the African Free Trade Agreement went into effect under Egypt’s AU chairmanship. Cairo organised the first coordinating summit in Niger in July 2019 to formulate and develop “the foundations of partnership and cooperation between the African Union, the regional economic blocs, and the member nations” towards the realisation of the principles of African integration and mutual dependency. That summit also launched the second working plan (2021-2030) for the comprehensive African infrastructural development programme which accords particular attention to the development of a continental electricity grid and the creation of an African-wide common energy market. In addition to this remarkable success, Egypt took the lead in representing Africa in major international forums with the aim of expanding opportunities for partnerships and networking between Africa and important loci on the international investment map. The most important milestones in this regard were the Chinese-African Summit in June 2019, the G20 Summit in Japan in June 2019 and the G7 Summit in France in August 2019. On top of these international summits came two that will be forever associated with Egypt in the history of the continent because of Cairo’s success in pioneering them: the first Russian-African summit in Sochi in October 2019 and the first British-African investment summit in London in January 2020.
The new Egyptian strategic vision accords considerable importance to African security and defence. In this regard, Egypt has initiated numerous dynamic cooperative mechanisms along the linkages between Egyptian national security and African security, starting with the AU police training centre to train security forces for the Sahel and Sahara countries. Egypt followed through by hosting the headquarters of the African Centre for Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development and then the permanent headquarters for the Sahel-Sahara Regional Counterterrorism Centre. The Aswan Forum for Peace and Development, which was held in December 2019, lay the cornerstone for an annual event, sponsored by the Egyptian presidency, dedicated to the advancement of peace and sustainable development in Africa. In the first forum, the Egyptian president launched “Silence the Guns 2020”, an initiative developed by the AU Peace and Security Council in 2019 during Egypt’s chairmanship of the African Union and that Egypt was keen to get off the ground in the framework of its commitment to conflict resolution and peace-making throughout the continent.
The strategic projects and plans that President Al-Sisi has inaugurated during the past six years share a common thread, which is the conviction that Egypt and its national security interweave in many significant ways with Africa and the Middle East, in which Egypt stands at crucial junctures, and with the international centres with which it is essential to work in order to generate a robust security climate. In this framework, Egypt has dedicated great efforts to promoting effective cooperation with all regional and international powers in order broaden the scopes of common interests that serve the welfare of all parties, out of the belief that such processes contribute in crucial ways to safeguarding Egypt’s vital interests at home and abroad. Accordingly, the Egyptian presidency’s action plan in the African sphere during the past six years was complimented by projects and agendas in other directions. Within the neighbouring Mediterranean sphere, for example, Egypt announced its strategic partnership with Greece and Cyprus in December 2015. Over the following years this first successful step towards promoting collaboration along the northern axis continued to evolve until it culminated in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Launched in 2019, the seven-country forum is the most important regional grouping in the field of energy as well as cooperation in other fields. Cairo, as a pioneering spirit and the headquarters of that forum, has become the centre of increasing international attention, and many other countries, including France and the US, have been inspired to ask to join the forum.
Nevertheless, 2016 stands out as the most important year in the evolution of Egypt’s international profile under the post-2014 order. That was the year in which Egypt acquired a seat on the UN Security Council, enabling it to truly reap the fruits of its efforts and visions concerning many major world problems. The attention and respect that Egypt acquired in the fight against terrorism poised it to head the UNSC Counterterrorism Committee, which is responsible for formulating and following through on the international community’s comprehensive strategy for fighting terrorism around the world. The work that Egypt performed as chair of this committee during the peak of the terrorist peril, which had begun to rear its head more widely and fiercely than ever before, earned Cairo greater trust and respect among its partners in the committee and the international community as a whole, many among which grew increasingly convinced by the Egyptian outlook on this issue.
Egypt’s success here led to other important and related posts and activities. It was unanimously elected as a member of the Human Rights Committee for the 2017-2021 term. In May 2018, it took part in the international conference on Libya that convened in Paris and brought together 20 states and four international organisations including the Arab League with the purpose of developing a roadmap for a political solution to the Libyan crisis. Egypt’s presence in that forum underscored both how crucial the Libyan situation is not just to Egypt but to the whole of North Africa and how influential a role Egypt can play in that crisis. Egypt, represented by President Al-Sisi, subsequently participated in the Palermo Conference in 2018 and the Berlin Conference in January 2020, taking its place along other major international stakeholders in the processes of developing solutions to lead Libya out of the vicious cycle of war and towards a healthy and stable political future.
The foregoing is only a segment of Egypt’s record of international relations and activities, but it is a strong indicator of how Al-Sisi’s government worked to elevate Egypt’s regional and international status and strengthen the bonds of mutual trust and cooperation between it and many other nations and international organisations. However, if the strategic vision that Al-Sisi set into motion in 2014 had the power to safeguard and secure Egypt’s strategic security at many levels, we ultimately have to underscore, if only briefly here, another essential component in the national security equation: the largest ever military modernisation and development drive in the history of modern Egypt. Any comprehensive concept of national security will provide for a major element of hard power to take its place alongside the soft power components of strategic strength. This is not to suggest that the Egyptian army was not as central to the protection of our national security before the revolution as it was after 30 June 2013. However, the sheer magnitude and multiplicity of the threats and challenges that faced Egypt as well as the rest of the region and the world during the past decade imposed new and unfamiliar burdens on our armed forces. This is what made President Al-Sisi accord the highest priority in his first six-year plan to the development of the Egyptian Armed Forces in accordance with the latest concepts of comprehensive power. This meant not only upgrading the structures, equipment and capacities of our army in order to render it as effective a safeguard as possible for Egyptian national security, but also equipping it to undertake new functions in the framework of protecting and promoting the comprehensive development and modernisation programme that is unfolding on the ground in Egypt at present. Under today’s conditions, active deference is a guarantee for sustaining the building processes that lead to success.
The writer is the general manager of the Egyptian Centre for Straregic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly