President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s attendance at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) later this month will take place against a backdrop of increased regional tension.
According to Egyptian officials familiar with President Al-Sisi’s priorities at the G7 Summit in France last month, and the more recent seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Libya continues to be a cause of major concern, and will undoubtedly be raised in New York.
It was a top issue, they say, in his talks with Macron, who hosted the G7, and in his discussions with both US President Donald Trump and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, met on the sidelines of the G7 and TICAD respectively.
According to one informed official, while Cairo may not have as much confidence as it once had in its Libyan ally Khalifa Haftar it remains convinced he continues to represent Libya’s best hope and the alternative is “a bunch of unruly militias that would manipulate the government of Fayez Sarraj”.
During the past few months Egypt, in cooperation with regional allies including the United Arab Emirates, has successfully lobbied international support for Haftar. Haftar’s subsequent failure to consolidate his position on the ground in Libya despite the strong support that Egypt and its regional and international allies had offered, has engendered scepticism about his ability to be “a strong leader of Libya who can do business with the world”.
To judge by his meetings in France and Japan, the source said, Al-Sisi “was successful in arguing the case for giving Haftar another chance and in calling on concerned international capitals to pressure countries like Turkey that have been supporting militias in Libya under the umbrella of the Sarraj government”.
During a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on the sidelines of the G7 Summit Al-Sisi argued that Sarraj, a close ally of Rome, has little control over the militias’ behaviour and appealed to the Italian leader to consider the impact of a strong militia presence in Libya on the stability of North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The same source added that the Italians remain worried about their oil supplies from the Sarraj-controlled western part of Libya.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy on Libya, in Cairo. Official statements coming out of Shoukri’s office stressed the same line Al-Sisi adopted with his Italian counterpart — militias cannot be allowed to control the fate of Libya.
The Palestinian situation is also bound to figure high on the agenda of the president’s talks at the UN in New York. Cairo sources say a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UNGA is possible. They concede that, while relations between the two leaders “have improved” compared to last year, differences remain on a number issues, including Washington’s so-called Deal of the Century.
Western diplomats are among the sources in Cairo who say there is still no definite date for Trump’s long awaited peace deal to be made public. Israeli elections will be held before the UNGA and with Benyamin Netanyahu expected to win they say the deal is likely to be unveiled once Netanyahu has cobbled together a coalition.
“Netanyahu is clear he does not want the deal as part of the bargaining process needed to assemble a coalition. Unless something goes terribly wrong the White House says the deal will be unveiled within weeks of the announcement of the Israeli government,” says one Cairo-based Western diplomat.
The last thing Egypt wants, according to Egyptian official sources, is for the Palestinians to greet the deal with a blanket rejection which will pull the carpet from beneath any resumption of peace talks.
Al-Sisi addressed the issue with the Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed during his visit to the Kuwaiti capital earlier this week. Al-Ahmed is scheduled to meet with Trump on 12 September for talks that will inevitably include the Palestinian situation.
According to Egyptian officials, the resumption of peace negotiations is needed to avert any possible political — or worse still — military explosion.
Any escalation on the Palestinian front, they say, will be particularly problematic given the levels of tensions between Israel and Lebanon in the wake of the exchange of military attacks earlier this week between Israel and Hizbullah.
Egypt has been actively seeking to contain the situation before it slips in the wrong direction, they say.
Both Israel and Hizbullah have let it be known they have no intention of upping the ante but concerned capitals worry miscalculations on either side could undermine such intentions.
Cairo and its closest Arab allies, including Riyadh, believe Hizbullah is acting at the behest of Tehran which is seeking to demonstrate its capacity to cause trouble in the region as a bargaining chip to bolster its position in the ongoing French initiative to secure some form of rapprochement with the US.
Macron is spearheading attempts to secure a meeting between Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.
Western diplomats in Cairo say that while Paris is making some progress towards this end nothing is guaranteed and there are many things that could still go wrong.
In addition to regional issues, Al-Sisi’s UNGA agenda will also focus on Africa. The environment, development and conflict resolution, with a particular focus on Sudan and other East African states, will feature high, as will counter-terrorist strategies and the situation in Sahel and the Sahara.
Al-Sisi will also be keen to promote Egypt as investment friendly in his meetings with world leaders at the UNGA.
According to a government source, “it is very crucial for the president himself to dispel scepticism about the role of the army in the economy”.
Foreign diplomats in Cairo have repeatedly referred to the army’s role in the economy as a possible concern when it comes to attracting foreign direct investments to Egypt. Recently, Al-Sisi has made a point of playing up private sector activity in the economy and this week Armed Forces Sprojects “that the army supervises” are intended to generate job opportunities for about five million civilians.
The UNGA opens in the third week of September. President Al-Sisi is expected to arrive in the US a couple of days before the inaugural session.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Pressing priorities