Reaching out to all: Egyptian foreign policy over past four years

Doaa El-Bey , Friday 16 Feb 2018

During the last four years Egypt has worked to create a diverse network of relations with the rest of the world

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi (L), US President Donald Trump (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Nabil Fahmi, Egypt’s first post-30 June foreign minister, defined Cairo’s immediate foreign policy objectives as portraying a “correct and proper image” of Egypt to the international community, restoring Egypt’s role in the Arab world, Africa and the Mediterranean region and outlining a comprehensive vision for the future of the country’s foreign relations.

Since then Egypt has worked to build a broad and balanced base for its regional and international relations. It has managed to improve ties with states like Russia and China, create a more balanced relation with the US and establish good ties with European, Arab and African states.

Cairo has made genuine efforts to resolve pressing crises in Syria and Libya, has continued to promote the Palestinian cause and held numerous meetings in an attempt to find a solution to the problems posed by Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.

Relations with Russia have undergone major improvement in the last four years, beginningshortly after the 30 June Revolution when Fahmi travelled to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The meeting paved the way for several official visits between Presidents Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Vladimir Putin and wide military cooperation.

Relations had cooled by the end of 2015 following the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai in October of that year.

Last year saw attempts from both sides to improve ties. These efforts were crowned by Putin’s visit to Cairo in December during which a preliminary agreement to construct the Dabaa nuclear power plant was signed.

A protocol to resume Moscow-Cairo flights beginning this month has also been signed, and Cairo and Moscow have agreed to hold further meetings in April to discuss the resumption of flights from Russia to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts. Russia was one of Egypt’s most important tourist markets before direct flights were cancelled following the Russian airliner crash.

Relations with Washington have been something of a roller-coaster tide during the last four years. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Cairo this week — the first leg of a Middle East tour — is likely to ease the tensions caused by the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The visit seeks to strengthen the countries’ shared commitment to fighting terrorism though issues that have clouded relations since July 2013 still present an obstacle to further improvement. US officials continue to receive representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in Washington and last August the US suspended a portion of the $1.3 billion annual military aid Washington provides Cairo citing human rights concerns.

Last year began with a thaw in Egyptian-American relations as Donald Trump entered the White House and President Al-Sisi was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on his election win.

Al-Sisi visited the US in May and held what Trump described as “very, very important talks”. The two leaders met again on the sidelines of the 72nd UN General Assembly in September.

Relations with the EU have improved. In 2017 the first round of dialogue between Egypt and the EU on migration was initiated. In July both parties agreed the EU-Egypt partnership priorities for 2017-2020, establishing the basis for further cooperation over economic reform, good governance, the rule of law and human rights, migration and security.

The EU has also granted Egypt €60 million to help deal with the pressures of hosting immigrants and refugees.

President Al-Sisi visited Germany last year, and Italy and France in 2015.

Full diplomatic relations with Rome resumed in September last year after being derailed when the body of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher and student in Cairo, was found in February 2016 in Cairo bearing marks of sustained torture. Following the discovery Rome withdrew its ambassador to Egypt.

Italy is among Egypt’s most important tourism markets, the fifth largest foreign investor in Egypt and its second largest partner in terms of trade volume.

Egypt has taken serious steps to enhance relations with Greece and Cyprus with five tripartite summits being held in the last two years. President Al-Sisi has hailed this tripartite cooperation as a model for the conduct of successful international relations.

Egypt has played a leading role within various international organisations since 2014. It is chair of the Group of 77 and China this year and held the presidency of the African Union Peace and Security Council during January 2018. It holds a seat on the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and in 2017 concluded a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Al-Sisi has said repeatedly that Gulf security is indivisible from Egypt’s own national security, one reason why Cairo has been keen to maintain strong ties with Gulf states. Last week Al-Sisi visited Oman and the UAE in an attempt to further improve ties.

Relations with Qatar, however, soured following Mohamed Morsi’s removal and have deteriorated further since. Together with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, Egypt cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June last year because of its support for terrorist groups. The severing of relations included withdrawing ambassadors and imposing trade and travel bans. More than six months have passed without a sign of compromise from either side.

In conflict-hit Syria, Cairo has attempted to protect the war-torn state’s national institutions and territorial integrity by promoting a political solution. Cairo has similarly promoted dialogue in Libya, calling for the implementation of the Skhirat agreement signed in December 2015 which calls on Libya’s rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli to establish a national unity administration.

Egypt has been keen to improve relations with African states on both the bilateral and multilateral levels.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has paid several visits to African countries and diplomatic efforts to resolve differences with Ethiopia over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have been vigorously pursued.

After meeting with the Sudanese president and the Ethiopian prime minister on the sidelines of the 30th AU Summit in Addis Ababa last month President Al-Sisi said “there is no crisis [over the dam] between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia… the interests of our three states are one.”

A tripartite meeting is likely to be held next month in Khartoum though the 17 tripartite meetings held over the last two years have failed to produce any agreement.

Late last year Ethiopia said 62 per cent of the construction of the dam has been completedand announced it would begin filling the dam’s reservoir by the middle of this year. Yet impact studies on the dam have yet to be finished and there is no agreement on pivotal issues, including the timetable for filling the reservoir and the dam’s operating protocols.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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