President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in his capacity as chair of the African Union, reviewed the central issues of concern to Africa in his address to the participants at the G7 Summit which convened in Biarritz this week. He devoted particular attention to strengthening security in the continent, in which context the Libyan question was a central concern. Climate change and developing partnerships between Africa and the G7 nations also featured among the issues Al-Sisi addressed in his appearances at the summit.
President Al-Sisi also held bilateral meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the summit. Security concerns, mutual economic interests and ways to forge closer cooperation were the focus of his meetings with US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
According to the spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Al-Sisi’s meeting with Trump focused on continued coordination and consultation on ways to strengthen peace and stability in the crisis-ridden Middle East. The US president lauded the progress despite the enormous challenges in security, stability and development made under Al-Sisi’s leadership. Trump praised, in particular, Egypt’s success in carrying out its economic reform programme and promoting comprehensive development, and expressed his wish to see increases in the volume of bilateral trade and mutual investment. In the framework of strategic coordination and consultation, the US president underscored the centrality of Egypt’s role in the Middle East and the importance of Egypt’s support for efforts to combat terrorism and secure the foundations of peace and stability in the region.
President Al-Sisi, in his meeting with his US counterpart, discussed a range of regional and international issues and developments of mutual concern, including the Libyan crisis and the Palestinian question. With regard to the latter, Al-Sisi reaffirmed Egypt’s support for all sincere efforts to promote a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of relevant international resolutions and in a manner that benefits all the people of the region.
Mohamed Kamal, a professor of international relations at Cairo University and an expert on American affairs, said it was remarkable that the meeting had been treated as more than a formality. Bilateral meetings at such summits are generally a matter of protocol, especially in the case of the G7 with an agenda including the US-China economic crisis, North Korea and Iran. “It is a measure of how far the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship has evolved,” Kamal said, addinhg that the meeting between Al-Sisi and Trump delved into a range of strategic Middle Eastern issues.
He also noted that the detailed treatment of the Libyan question in Al-Sisi’s meetings with Macron and Conte indicated the priority the subject has assumed in bilateral relations and the value attached to Egypt’s role. Egypt took part in the recent P3+3 meeting on Libya in Paris in which participants called for an international meeting on Libya and for further efforts to promote a truce and to enhance the opportunities for national reconciliation.
According to Fawzi Al-Haddad, a political analyst and academic at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, the Egyptian position on Libya conveyed by President Al-Sisi in Biarritz reflects the fact Egypt’s outlook conforms with the majority of Libyans, with the military establishment and parliament — that a military resolution to the crisis, starting with the battle to free the capital from the grip of the militias, is a prerequisite to the restoration of stability.
Egypt has accumulated a wealth of expertise in the process of helping to rebuild the Libyan state through, for example, the many rounds of talks Cairo has sponsored between Libyan stakeholders in order to reunify the Libyan military establishment. The strategic priority the Libyan question receives in Egyptian policymaking is due to considerations related to Egyptian national security and mutual Egyptian-Libyan interests.
Unfortunately, certain regional and international powers remain bent on fuelling the Libyan crisis.
“Turkey and Qatar, above all, have been supplying weapons to the militias. A similar situation applies to France and Italy. The two countries, motivated by their own interests, have repeatedly undermined the efforts of the other,” Al-Haddad said.
“This is one reason why Libya is an international question and why President Al-Sisi put it before world leaders.”
Another factor in play, according to Al-Haddad, is the appreciation by world leaders of the central role Egypt has to play in the Libyan question. Even France and Italy, despite their differences, agree on this point. As influential as these powers are, Al-Haddad believes it is the US, once it decides to focus on the issues, which will achieve the real breakthrough on Libya.
“The US holds the key. The reports on the part the US has played in targeting the locations of terrorist organisations and leaders in Libya confirm this. Also, Washington has the ability to make European powers face de facto realities.”
For the time being Washington has other priorities and its approach to Libya is governed by, among other things, its counter-terrorism strategy. Al-Haddad concluded: “On the whole, with regard to Egypt’s actions at the G7 Summit, we can say that Egypt’s influence and its role in the Libyan question have been instrumental in clearing the way for a solution to the Libyan crisis. Indeed, Egypt has already overcome many hurdles towards this end.”
Closer Egyptian-British relations were another strategic aim of Egypt’s participation at the G7 Summit. According to the statements of the spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Al-Sisi and Johnson agreed that they looked forward to a period that would bring effective steps towards the development of the bilateral relationship between Egypt and Britain. These include measures to stimulate frameworks for bilateral cooperation, especially in the fields of economy, politics, security and tourism. The two leaders also expressed their determination to sustain consultation and coordination on the major issues and crises in view of the many challenges and threats facing the Middle East.
Observers in Cairo foresee a new and dynamic period in Egyptian-British relations, especially when compared to Johnson’s predecessors in London following Egypt’s 30 June 2013 Revolution.
Tewfick Aclimandos of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies observed that Johnson is different from his predecessors in one important respect — his approach to the Muslim Brotherhood is more in line with Cairo’s. Aclimandos believes that this is one of the main issues that will have an impact on economic relations between the two countries, and “Johnson will probably be more interested in signing economic partnerships with Egypt if his government stays in power.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly newpaper