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Egypt Navigating dangerous waters as President Sisi participates at UN General Assembly

The complex challenges forming the backdrop to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s participation at the UN General Assembly this week lent his activities and remarks a multi-layered resonance, writes Said Okasha

Said Okasha , Wednesday 25 Sep 2019
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s participation at the UN General Assembly (photo: AP)
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President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to New York to take part in the 74th UN General Assembly (UNGA) coincided with a systematic smear campaign targeting Egypt and President Al-Sisi in person, escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ongoing and seemingly intractable crises in Yemen and Libya, Turkish attempts to push the situation in northern Syria to the brink of war, and a trade war between the US and China that is sending tremors through international markets.

Al-Sisi’s attendance was a practical response to the recent surge of rumour-mongering intended to create an impression of divisions within government institutions and between the president and military and security leaders. On Friday, minor protests in Egypt were blown out of all proportion by Brotherhood-leaning media outlets. The Muslim Brotherhood and its international organisation tried to capitalise on them to foment disorder and rebellion.

President Al-Sisi did not divert from his programme and, as scheduled, attended the General Assembly. It was an eloquent and practical refutation of the rumours. Simply by meeting with world leaders and officials from the US and elsewhere he put paid to the credibility of the stories and their source.

This could not have been better illustrated than in his meeting with US President Donald Trump who dismissed not just the rumours but the very notion of a crisis in Egypt due to mounting opposition.

“Demonstrations? No, everybody has demonstrations,” Trump said during a meeting with Al-Sisi on Monday.

“Egypt has a great leader, he’s highly respected, and he’s brought order. Before he was here there was very little order, there was chaos. So I’m not worried about that.”

President Trump, informed and updated by his staff, was well aware the demonstrations hostile parties had tried to blow out of proportion amounted to no more than a few hundred protesters across four governorates.  

Trump understands how important it is to back stability in Egypt, and the crucial role Egypt plays in a region where severe crises have created fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit and export terrorism across the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Egypt’s role is more vital than ever to efforts to restore stability to Libya, Sudan and Yemen given the threat Tehran’s proxies in the region pose to US interests, and the way Ankara’s current policies undermine both stability in Iraq and efforts to resolve the protracted Syrian conflict.

Al-Sisi was clear and frank when he warned against showing indulgence towards Islamist movements that use violence and terrorism as a means to reach power. “You will always find protests like this in our region, especially with political Islam”: Al-Sisi’s focus on the dangers of political Islam affirmed the depth of common interests between Egypt and the US.

During his meeting with Trump Al-Sisi also responded indirectly to those politicians and intellectuals who argue the Muslim Brotherhood should be assimilated into political life not just in Egypt but across the Middle East. “Public opinion in Egypt cannot and will not accept Islamist rule,” he said.

As head of the African Union, Al-Sisi advocated strongly for Africa, pointing out that investing in Egypt is an indirect investment in the fight against terrorism which is working to gain a foothold in many parts of the world, Africa included.

Al-Sisi highlighted Egypt’s centrality to the realisation of African goals and aspirations. Egypt has become a point of entry into the African market. If we can create solid links, such as roads and railroads, between the countries of the continent, the returns will be in the billions and Africa will benefit greatly, he said.

Addressing the UNGA on Tuesday, he said Africa was a “continent of opportunities” and invited international financial organisations to support the development of African economies. He highlighted how African nations had succeeded in consolidating the principal of African solutions to African problems, resolving many of the continents’ conflicts, as in Central Africa, and formulating a common vision among the different parties in Sudan. He also lobbied for Sudan to be removed from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

In the interest of promoting stability in the region while simultaneously stripping Islamist movements of one of the most commonly used pretexts for their existence, President Al-Sisi underscored the need to find a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  

Addressing the UNGA on Tuesday, he said the absence of a just solution based on international resolutions calling for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital not only means the continuation of the desperate plight of the Palestinian people but entails the continued depletion of the resources of the peoples of the Middle East.

Until a Palestinian state is established terrorist groups — the military wings of political Islam — will continue to exploit the Palestinian cause to incite the people of Arab and Islamic nations against the US and against their own governments and drive thousands of young people to commit terrorist acts in the name of “jihad”, and of freeing the Palestinians from tyranny.

In this context, the US should bear in mind that Egypt will not help Washington market a deal that is prejudicial to Palestinian rights. In the absence of a Palestinian partner, and an agreement that contains major concessions towards the realisation of Palestinian rights, Egypt will not lend itself to promoting the so-called Deal of the Century.

Which is why President Al-Sisi, in his conversation with Trump, pointed out that Egypt has amply demonstrated the importance of its role for many years, through both attempts to work with the US to find ways to revive and sustain the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process and through its indefatigable efforts to promote Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation, a major step towards the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The president also called for international support in finding a solution to the stalemate in negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He told the UNGA that although Egypt understands Ethiopia’s position on the construction of GERD, Nile water is a matter of life and death for Egypt. He urged the international community to convince all parties to be flexible and resume negotiations.

“Unfortunately, the negotiations have not reached the desired results,” the president said, adding that Egypt still hopes to reach an agreement that guarantees the interests of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

If Egypt is to perform its vital roles in the service of peace and stability in the Middle East and Africa it needs to be supported in its economic development efforts, a point President Al-Sisi underscored in the course of his visit to New York.

At a banquet on Sunday evening, hosted in the Egyptian president’s honour by the American Chamber of Commerce in New York and attended by the first vice-president of the American Chamber of Commerce, the chairman of the American-Egyptian Business Council and many US business leaders, Al-Sisi said Egypt was looking forward to investments by US firms in Egypt’s development process and in the mega projects being carried out across the country.

According to Presidential Spokesperson Bassam Radi, Al-Sisi also drew attention to the comprehensive investment map Egypt has launched, and the country’s ambitious strategy to become a regional energy hub.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Navigating dangerous waters

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