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2020 Yearender: Egyptian foreign policy - Terms of stability

Egypt has had to calibrate its foreign policy choices to take account of armed conflicts and lopsided political deals

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 31 Dec 2020
Al-Sisi and world leaders
Al-Sisi and world leaders on the sidelines of the Berlin Conference in January 2020
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To the dismay of Cairo, 2020 brought an end to four years of good chemistry-driven rapport between the Egyptian regime and the US administration. Indeed, US President Donald Trump’s failure to secure re-election is one of the most annoying political facts for Egypt since 2016.

“We don’t agree with everything Trump did over the past year, especially his fast tracking of Arab-Israeli normalisation, but we agreed a lot with the Trump administration on what the stability of this region is about,” said a government official associated with the management of Egyptian-American relations.

Egypt and the US, under the Trump administration, agreed that regional stability required that as many political Islam groups as possible be eliminated, both “those with an overt militant profile and those whose profile might seem less violent,” said the official.

“This was essential for our war on terrorism which has consequences for Egyptian and regional stability.”

That Egypt worked with some of the US’ closest regional allies on the war on terrorism, “including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others”, helped cement US support.

Trump, added the official, was aware of the “challenge of terrorism Egypt has been facing” and was willing to skip “unnecessary remarks on human rights” while Egypt was “in the midst of tough security challenges”.  

The source argued that good relations between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself a close ally of Islamist groups, never undermined US support for Egypt.

He argued that even when Ankara managed to lobby Trump into including some Islamists in Libya as a prerequisite for a workable political deal in Libya, the views of Egypt on who to include and exclude from within Islamist circles were never ignored by Washington.

On 20 January 2021 Egypt will face a new reality in Washington. Abdel-Raouf Al-Ridi is a long-serving former ambassador in Washington and an old foreign policy hand. Speaking on the prospects for cooperation or clash between Cairo and Washington under the administration of the US President-elect Joe Biden, Al-Ridi firmly favoured cooperation.

Egypt, he argued, will always find a way to work with any US administration, Republican or Democrat. And, he added, any US administration will find it impossible to discard Egypt from its calculations concerning Middle East policy.

According to Al-Ridi, when it comes to managing conflict in Libya, addressing the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and facing up to terrorist groups, any US administration will need to work closely with Egypt. Under no administration, he argued, has the full volume of the “definitely strategic” Egyptian-American relations been reduced to concerns that the US might have over human rights in Egypt.

Al-Ridi sees considerable scope for agreement with the Biden administration on some of the most destabilising factors affecting the region. He hoped for a calmer approach to the Iran nuclear file and a refocusing on the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle which might not be to the liking of every country in the region “but it would certainly work well for Egypt’s foreign policy interests”.

PEACE VS NORMALISATION

The year is coming to an end with the signing of normalisation agreements between Israel and several Arab countries. In September it was the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In November it was Sudan. This month, it was Morocco. Speculations is rife that other Arab countries are readying to normalise, regardless of the lack of progress in addressing the Palestinian plight.

Each time the US announced a normalisation agreement between Israel and an Arab state, Cairo expressed “appreciation” for the work done to secure the deal. Speaking off record, however, Egyptian officials expressed “deep concern” about the collapse of interest in the Palestinian cause in Arab capitals. This has been the case despite Palestinian Authority (PA) complaints about pressure from Egypt on the Palestinian leadership during the Trump presidency to re-start Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in the absence of any Israeli commitment to honour its obligations under previous deals.

As the year draws to a close, the PA is again counting on Egypt to help pick up the pieces of the long-stalled negotiations process. In December, Egypt, Jordan, France, and Germany were planning a foreign ministers meeting in which the four countries’ top diplomats would meet with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts to discuss the possibility of relaunching the peace process in anticipation of any plans that the Biden administration might have in this direction.

It is not immediately clear how far this work can advance amid Israeli celebrations of its new normalisation agreements and the still uncertain political future of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Egypt is not expecting Biden to reverse the path of normalisation. “Most probably, Biden will work to keep normalisation going, and even expand its scope, but might do so while simultaneously to revive the peace talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

Egypt, he added, is already consulting with Palestinians over the matter and is again hard at work promoting Hamas-Fatah reconciliation to help set the Palestinian stage for a possible relaunch of peacemaking, “most likely towards the end of next year rather than in its early months”.

RECONCILIATION(S) IN THE MAKING 

Palestinian sources in both Fatah and Hamas say Egypt plays an essential role in helping conflicting Palestinian factions come together. They add, however, that in the last 12 months other mediators have emerged, including Turkey which this autumn hosted Fatah-Hamas talks. Qatar too, not traditionally in the good books of Fatah given its continued financial support of Hamas, has been making overtures on this file.

On at least three occasions in 2020 Egypt condoned Qatari financial help to Gaza to secure stability in the Strip. Egypt has also worked to keep a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel going and has been trying hard to complement this armistice with a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel.

As the year neared its end Egypt was still trying to get Hamas and Fatah to agree on the sequence of legislative, National Council and presidential elections which Hamas insists should be held simultaneously while Fatah wants a staged sequence with presidential elections last.

Egypt has received no help from the Trump Administration in promoting Palestinian rapport except where it serves the immediate security demands of Israel vis-à-vis Gaza. With the Biden administration, Egypt is hoping that the restart of essential aid suspended by Trump and the revival of the two-state solution approach would encourage Palestinians to mend their fences.

According to a Washington-based Arab diplomat, the rapprochement Trump is trying to secure before leaving the White House between Qatar and the Arab Quartet (Egypt, the UAE, KSA and Bahrain) might help Palestinian reconciliation. The early phase of this partial end of the boycott against Doha, the diplomatic source said, is likely to include Qatar and the KSA. Qatar, he added, has a good relationship with Hamas leaders and the KSA has improved its relations with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority after not jumping on the normalisation train.

The source argued that despite Iranian influence on Hamas, if both Doha and Riyadh agree some sort of Palestinian reconciliation could be secured. Even a partial reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, he added, could help the situation in Gaza, which is a key Egyptian concern, and strengthen the PA position in possible negotiations with Israel.

Meanwhile, it is not clear what Biden will do to build on the partial Arab reconciliation Trump is trying to secure. Biden must first decide on how to address relations with each of the Arab Gulf states before he moves on to their collective relations.

EGYPT’S PRIORITIES 

Two informed Egyptian officials say the reconciliation deal the outgoing US president is trying to secure is unlikely to address Egypt’s concerns about Qatari support for political Islamist groups that Egypt labels as terrorist. Even so, if Egypt is to invest in lobbying the new US administration on anything it would not, according to Egyptian diplomats, be about fixing a rushed deal with Qatar but rather securing US support for Egypt’s concerns over stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Horn of Africa.

Throughout 2020, Cairo has worked on these three fronts to secure its strategic interests. It has consolidated relations with Cyprus and Greece and enhanced cooperation with them over gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, and worked closely with France and Italy towards the same ends.

During talks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris in December, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi got reassurances that France would continue to work with Egypt to contain Turkish attempts to expand its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. France has also lobbied the EU and NATO to deter what it, like Egypt, sees as Turkish expansionism in the region.

Egyptian sources say that while access to natural gas is a key concern, other concerns are just as important. Cairo has been very open about its unease over Ankara’s support for militant Islamist groups across the Mediterranean — “in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya”, as one official noted.

Egypt is banking on the support of France, but also of Jordan, another close US ally, in bringing the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean to the attention of the incoming US administration. Egypt is also counting on Jordanian cooperation in managing the situation in the Red Sea, an area where many states not bordering the sea are pursuing their own commercial and security interests.

This year Egypt joined Jordan in two partnerships, one focused on development and security cooperation with Iraq, the other, the eight-nation Red Sea Forum (RSF), on security around the Red Sea.

Sudan, Egypt’s most important southern neighbour, is also a member of the RSF, and Khartoum, like Cairo, is concerned over the future of Nile water resources given Ethiopia’s construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) , and over the possible ramifications of any instability in Ethiopia. The latter worry is shared by Eritrea.

Hani Raslan, a senior researcher on african affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes if Egypt is to prioritise a single file for the attention of the new US administration then it should be GERD and the explosive situation in East Africa.

“There is nothing more crucial to the interests of Egypt than its share of water from the Nile. Trump had spoken about helping Egypt but he never put enough pressure on Ethiopia to agree a fair deal,” Raslan said. Biden, he added, might not be immediately supportive of Egypt but he would help because this is “an existential threat to Egypt” which is ultimately a good US ally and an important neighbour to Israel.

While East Africa might not be a priority for Biden, especially during his first months, Cairo will feel bound to draw the attention of the new administration in Washington to the need to contain “an explosive ethnic conflict” that has been unfolding in Ethiopia and Eritrea from expanding into other Horn of Africa countries, particularly Somalia.

According to Al-Ridi, the list of common interests between Cairo and Washington is long, and Egypt needs to work on securing support for these interests through contacts with new administration officials, Congress, and influential think-tanks.

“It is a lot of work but that is always the case during the transition between administrations. And there is always a way for Egyptian diplomacy to find the right points of entry into the new administration in Washington.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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