Cairo’s relations with the US administration and with Saudi Arabia had worsened and reached new lows. Egypt was unable to achieve significant progress on many key issues. No tangible improvement had been seen in Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Palestine, etc.
Relations with Italy were deeply affected by Regini’s death. Egypt, after a promising beginning, was unable to develop its relations with Russia, and some countries still boycotted Egypt’s airports. The world media coverage was impressively negative. The obviously wrong handling of some important crisis deserved criticism – and got it.
In the foreign policy community, a lot of whispering could be heard. Some scholars and experts wondered whether the different teams were up to the task. Some officials privately said the pace of events, the relentless media campaigns against Cairo’s regime, forced them into a defensive and reactive attitude. They could not devote much time to planning.
A former minister told me: “You cannot expect investors to come if you are on bad terms with Riyadh and Washington.”
The most optimistic observers conceded that the situation was serious but should not last.
Today the picture is very different. The regime, once deemed to be authoritarian and incompetent, is praised for its economic reforms. In private, foreign diplomats say: “It is reassuring to see that it is able to guarantee stability."
At least two good observers told me that the reforms also sent a clear message: Egypt is not addicted to expedients and can cope with the effects of sanctions.
Relations with Riyadh have not just improved; the two countries have joined efforts with the Emirates and Bahrain against Qatar.
In Libya, Egypt has achieved significant progress, with the relative stabilisation of the eastern half of the country.
Cairo has been able, through a mix of carrots and sticks, and with the help of its Arab allies, to reconcile Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Relations with the Trump administration seem, despite the new, unexpected sanctions, in better shape than those with former president Obama.
Relations with Italy have resumed, Egypt’s ties with Africa are strengthening, many partnerships with European countries are being developed, etc.
Of course, not all news is positive. The last US sanctions should be a reminder: Egyptian authorities have a lot of foes in Washington – those who neither forget nor forgive the NGOs episode, those who still think political Islam is a safer bet, those who do not like our record on human rights, those who are dissatisfied with Egypt’s evolution. Egypt has yet to convince Russia to remove its ban on flights to our airports, etc. And, above all, our economy is very frail.
But any overall review would reach the same conclusion: the picture has significantly improved. So what happened?
The foreign-policy team is the same, our orientations are the same, and, to the best of our knowledge, the decision-making process is the same.
One explanation, of course, would be that “luck” or unforeseen developments, have reverted the tide. Egypt was most unlucky in 2015/6, and the 2017 reversal of fortunes was both unexpected and welcome.
For instance, Egypt is benefiting a lot from Erdogan’s erratic and demagogic behaviour and his staggering ability to anger almost everybody. Our leaders are more predictable, more rational, and more reliable.
Moreover, the situation in Turkey has significantly deteriorated, both at home and outside. The days when an alliance with Ankara could seem a safer, more efficient and less expensive bet seem to belong to a distant past. This is all the more surprising since the Turkish bureaucracy is much more efficient than the Egyptian one, and Turkey's towns and economy are in much better shape than Egypt’s.
In the same vein, Egypt is also benefiting from the u-turn in US policy toward Iran, and from the very serious rift pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For instance, Qatar is less able to help those who adopted anti-Egyptian stances in Libya and Palestine. Moreover, accepting Qatar’s help or helping Qatar entail considerable risk – angering both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Iran can no longer rely on Washington’s patience and has to take into account Egypt’s (and Israel’s) red lines.
New peaks in migration and terrorism are also strengthening Egypt’s hand and its assets. Europe now needs Cairo’s help on these issues. Some conflicts seem to be entering their final stage, and Cairo could play a significant role in the ongoing negotiations.
But this last point should draw our attention. Luck has nothing to do with the fact that Egypt has some important cards to play. This is due to tenacity, to patient networking, to an ability to avoid quick and ill-considered decisions and to overcome the considerable handicap of weak financial resources. Plus an unerring flair on some issues.
Egypt’s relative slowness and its red lines – for instance, you should avoid as much as possible betting on militias, you should understand that dismantling a state is easy, while rebuilding one is often “mission impossible” – are often criticized as being too constraining, but they also are often an asset.
I am no foreign-policy expert, and I do not have access to the main decision circles. But I would dare to conclude and say the following: Do not underestimate Egypt’s assets.
True, its soft power belongs to the distant past, and the regime should pay attention to this. But Egypt is mighty and its staff has considerable experience.
Its foreign-policy apparatus seems, despite what it is saying, able to define sound strategies and to play patient and long games. It never loses the sense of long-term considerations.
On the other hand, I’m less sure it is able to quickly to react to unforeseen crisis, or to exploit all the opportunities.
More flexibility regarding the red lines should be considered. These red lines often protect us from temptations and blunders, but they can also cripple us.
And above all, never forget that this area is unpredictable, and the moods of Fortune change quickly.