News about a proposed new alliance called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) has surfaced from the White House and particularly Tim Lenderking, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Gulf affairs.
Lenderking has conducted shuttle visits to a number of countries in the Middle East in preparation for the announcement of the new alliance in January 2019.
The alliance should include Egypt, the US, Jordan and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and possibly Qatar, and it may be an Arab version of NATO designed to curb the growing influence of Iran in the region, according to Lenderking.
Curbing Iranian influence remains high on the agendas of all the aforementioned countries with the exception of Qatar that at the moment is on the best of terms with the Iranians.
The idea of including Qatar in the alliance, even with a US military base situated in the country, remains objectionable to key potential members, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, all of which have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and boycotted any form of cooperation with the Qatari regime.
Meanwhile, the Saudi leadership has long been reluctant to act on Egypt’s calls for a regional military alliance that would include the Arab countries as a form of self-sustaining regional pact that would guarantee the security of the region without relying on external alliances.
Egypt’s first call followed the end of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War and was labelled the “Damascus Declaration”. It was overlooked as a result of political conflicts and possibly Western pressure.
In 2014, a call for a new Arab alliance in the face of continued terrorism threats and Iranian ambitions by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was also met less than enthusiastically by the Saudis, who agreed in principal but then launched their own version of an alliance called the Islamic Alliance and invited countries such as Pakistan and Egypt to join it.
Of the countries mentioned in the context of the new alliance, Egypt has a unique political position that must be considered above all other agendas.
Egypt, Jordan and Turkey are the only countries in the Middle East region to have diplomatic relations with Israel. These are not shared by other countries in the region, which do not officially recognise the Israeli state. How this will affect the Arab Gulf states’ stance remains unclear.
Furthermore, in 1961 Egypt with India and the former Yugoslavia formed the Non-Aligned Movement that aimed to establish an organisation of states that did not seek to align themselves with either the United States or the former Soviet Union.
That stance has remained the backbone of Egyptian foreign policy even with the country’s close military and political ties with the former Soviet Union through the 1950s and 1960s and then with the United States from 1977 until today.
Throughout these decades Egypt has not intervened militarily in any conflict at the request of either the former Soviet Union or the United States.
The potential Egyptian membership of the MESA should not contradict this political stance despite the declining importance of the Non-Aligned Movement after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Moreover, Egypt enjoys excellent diplomatic, commercial and military relations with all the world’s leading powers, including the US, Russia and China.
Egypt possesses arms from all three countries, and ongoing weapons deals are being conducted with them. Moreover, Egypt’s relations with Russia are witnessing their warmest period since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian leadership is aware that it cannot step into a new regional alliance without having a clear vision of how it could affect other international relations and obligations.
Furthermore, there are many unanswered questions about the nature of this new alliance in relation to the conflicts in the region.
The current Egyptian-Turkish showdown and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unequivocal support for terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the likes of the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda groups in the region is a hostile stance Egypt is still facing.
There have been no clear answers on what the stance of the said alliance could be should a military conflict with the Turkish regime take place, especially given its expansionist ambitions in the region.
If the MESA was invoked to curb aggression, would it favour the Turkish regime or Egypt or the countries of the Arab Gulf? Or would the pact be only directed towards Iran and have no other purpose?
Egypt has rejected calls for direct military involvement in both Syria and Yemen. In the case of the latter conflict, the Egyptian participation has meant the deployment of a handful of naval vessels and warplanes as part of efforts to restore the legitimate government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, ousted by Iranian-supported Al-Houthi rebels. It has also aimed to obstruct any Iranian attempts to control the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait.
Unlike the Saudi leadership, which said it could settle the civil war in Yemen in a few weeks of its involvement, the Egyptian leadership has had a more realistic view and rejected calls for Egyptian ground troops becoming involved in the conflict, with later developments showing that this decision was the correct one.
The war that was projected to take a few weeks, according to Saudi military estimates, has been ongoing since March 2015, and the Iranian involvement has resulted in the launching of missiles towards southern regions of Saudi Arabia. Egypt has also refused pressure to get directly involved in the ongoing Syrian civil war with ground troops or any other form of military intervention.
These considerations raise the question of whether the US and Saudi Arabia now want to see Egypt become more militarily involved in the region.
Egypt has stressed many times that it will never intervene in any conflict unless the sovereignty of its allies and particularly of the Gulf states is under threat.
Should the Iranian regime attempt to launch an offensive against any of these states, it will see the mobilisation of Egyptian troops for defensive purposes.
But aside from this, Egypt is not keen on becoming involved in attacks on any other state, raising the question once again of whether the proposed MESA is simply a defensive pact, whether it is an alliance against Iran, or if there is more to it than meets the eye.
In the light of the above, Egypt must weigh the pros and cons of the proposed new alliance against the background of its own political, military and economic situation, regardless of how tempting joining it may seem.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unanswered questions on the MESA