The world is in a state of upheaval the like of which has been unseen in decades. Multiple conflicts and crises, from the 10-month conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the ongoing repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic to economic strains, unaffordable energy costs, breakdowns in food-supply chains, and the very real threat of climate change, are arriving together and having mutually compounding effects.
Moreover, they come on top of longstanding conflicts in various parts of the world, the continued plagues of terrorism, illegal migration, coups d’état, and the proliferation of armed groups and militias, all of which are aggravated by the hegemonic ambitions of non-Arab regional powers and the mounting pressures from the great powers in the context of the sharpening polarisation among them.
The Arab region is having to face more than its fair share of such challenges, especially given its own problems in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the instability in Sudan, Lebanon and Libya, the still-seething disputes in the Maghreb, and Iran’s destructive behaviour in the Gulf and Turkey’s adversarial policies in the East Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
MULTIPLE CHALLENGES: Reckless and irresponsible behaviour on the part of the major world powers and their allies have brought the world to the brink, while international institutions, their hands virtually tied by pressures from the major powers, are barely capable of crisis management, especially in view of the magnitude and complexity of the interrelated challenges.
The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war is a major threat to international peace and security. The scope of the confrontation could rapidly expand, even as the consequences of the ongoing war continue to strain the economies and well-being of countries and peoples across all the continents, especially those that are dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain, fertilisers, and energy resources.
The European countries are staring at a particularly harsh winter as energy prices shoot up and gas and oil supplies dwindle. But it is the developing nations that have suffered the most from the fallout of the war in Ukraine. Barely had they begun to recover from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic than they were hit by the food, energy, fertiliser, and other crises that not only could undermine their stability but also threaten grave humanitarian disasters.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that if the war continues it will drive millions more people into hunger. Already, 325 million people worldwide face severe food insecurity and are “marching towards starvation”, the UN says.
When releasing its Chief Economists Outlook in May 2022, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said that the report “comes out amid extremely high uncertainty about geopolitical developments, the trajectory of the global economy, and the next steps for economic policy.”
The first of the six expectations for the future of the economy discussed in the report is “higher inflation alongside lower real wages globally.” The second is “food insecurity in developing economies”. The report says that “instead of entering a post-Covid recovery phase, economies are experiencing additional shocks, first and foremost from the war in Ukraine and associated geopolitical repercussions, but also from new outbreaks of Covid-19 and lockdowns in major industrial centres.”
In the light of these global challenges, with their associated inflationary and supply chain stresses, economists have had to revise their forecasts for economic growth. At the beginning of 2022, they predicted that the world’s largest economies would return to their pre-Covid growth rates by the end of the year, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicted a global growth rate of 4.5 per cent in 2022 and 3.2 per cent in 2023.
However, in April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that global growth would drop to 3.6 per cent in 2022 from an estimated 6.1 per cent in 2021 and from its January 2022 forecast of 4.4 per cent.
Against this grim and, indeed, perilous international backdrop, artificial intelligence, social media bots, online terrorism, organised crime, human-trafficking, and other such ills have been weaponised by governments that have no compunction in using terrorist groups and militias to serve agendas from regime change to the exploitation of the resources of the countries they target.
They do so with impunity, moreover, despite the 2001 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.
CHALLENGES FOR EGYPT: Many countries have found it difficult to resist the economic and political pressures, sometimes amounting to blackmail, that the major powers have employed to compel others to support this or that side in the war in Ukraine.
Egypt is familiar with such pressures, which have sometimes weaponised human rights and political freedoms and which aim to weaken its resolve and undermine its national development programme and its drive to generate a secure and prosperous future for the country and its people.
What has buffered Egypt against such ploys has been its steadfast insistence on the principles of mutual respect and equality in all its foreign dealings and in its staunch opposition to outside meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs and attempts to infringe on their sovereignty and independence.
Egypt is also a strong advocate of peace and stability in its regional environment, towards which end it promotes a spirit of cooperation, the adherence to the principles of international law, the commitment to international treaties and covenants, and support for UN organisations and international cooperation and mutual support.
Cairo has thus been able to fend of such pressures by resting on its long-established neutrality, independent will, and commitment to the principles of international law.
However, no country has been immune to today’s multiple and interrelated crises, which have in turn affected their foreign policies, and Egypt is no exception. Much of the problem has to do with the fog that envelops crises such as the war in Ukraine, and the consequent inability to predict how they will play out.
Rapidly fluctuating situations put policy planners and other political leaders and strategists under immense strain as they scramble to assess the effects of a particular crisis on the dynamics of existing regional conflicts, the ways in which international or regional powers may attempt to exert pressure or influence, the prices of food and energy, and inflationary and recessionary trends.
Egypt has managed its development process over the past 10 years in a way that has enabled it to conduct a balanced foreign policy in its various spheres of interest. Its approach rests on the foundations of the 30 June 2013 Revolution, which emphasised the importance of sustaining the independence of the country’s foreign policy by diversifying its sources, avoiding alliances with powers engaged in disputes or conflicts, and maintaining an equal distance from disputants.
This approach has helped Egypt to pursue its domestic goals, prime among which is the implementation of major social and economic development programmes. Most recently, and faced with the impacts of the pandemic and then the war in Ukraine, Egypt has expanded the cash grants made under its Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Dignity) programmes, raised pensions and public-sector wages, introduced tax relief measures and taken other steps to mitigate the impact of rising prices.
Egypt has also requested IMF support for a comprehensive economic programme to address the adverse economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine, restore macro-financial stability, and shore up its structural reform programme.
AREAS OF ACTION: Egypt is thus facing its many major challenges with patience and fortitude, armed with the will of its people, a strong army, a resilient economy, and robust diplomacy.
Such assets are a powerful shield that enables the country to parry outside pressures as it moves to make gains and achievements that serve national goals and aspirations. Egyptian diplomacy has also summoned up the necessary flexibility and ingenuity to devise new and innovative tools and strategies to cope with rapidly fluctuating patterns and states of play in the current crises and their ramifications.
A central foreign policy goal is to enhance Egypt’s ability to work together with others to counter regional threats, safeguard the regional environment, and minimise any problems that might distract or weaken our ability to confront more serious risks and dangers.
Egypt is well-positioned both to lead and to work with others in alleviating the international conflicts that affect us. Drawing on the prestige it enjoys with the major powers, from the US and Europe to China and Russia, and its various channels with regional and international organisations such as the UN, the Arab League, and the African Union, Egypt can help to shift the international agenda towards further cooperation, calm, and stability.
Perhaps Egypt could also mobilise its relations in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) towards this end. It could coordinate with India, one of the most-influential members of the NAM, for example. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as guest of honour at the celebrations of the Indian Republic Day on 26 January. He has also invited Al-Sisi to attend the G20 group of nations summit meeting that India will be hosting next year.
Such developments will give impetus to Egypt’s call to fellow NAM members to realign themselves to contend with the present international polarisation, collectively defend themselves against the pressures exerted on them by the major powers, and allay the heavy costs that they, along with other Third World countries, are being compelled to pay due to the impetuousness of the major powers that has driven the global economy to the brink of recession.
Surely, the members of the NAM, singly and together, can serve as a desperately needed voice of reason in the current conjuncture. Their appeal to end the violence in Ukraine and restore calm to the international environment could be the prelude to the launching of a new international charter or covenant for the post-pandemic world in which all the signatories would pledge to uphold the principles of international law and end the enmity and hostile machinations that are impeding cooperation against the perils that threaten all humanity and, indeed, our planet.
The UN COP27 held in Sharm El-Sheikh in November was a perfect example of Egypt’s diverse capacities. It showcased in a practical way the influence and efficacy of Egyptian diplomacy, both in terms of what it has accomplished for the country as well as in the service of regional and global causes.
Egypt’s organisational and diplomatic management of this international event was instrumental to placing African and Third World concerns front and centre in international climate action. One of the most important outcomes of the negotiations was the landmark establishment of a Loss and Damage Fund for the neediest countries that are the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.
For the first time in the nearly three decades since the first COP conference on climate change was held, the major industrialised nations have committed themselves to a mechanism that follows through on international pledges to the developing nations that have been the most harmed by climate change mainly caused by the industrialised nations. As the president of the COP27, Egypt played a crucial part in formulating the climate-action agenda. It also proposed innovative initiatives and solutions, many of which were designed to help developing nations in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World.
Egypt will continue to play this role throughout the remainder of its presidency, supporting the international agenda on climate action that has long been one of Egypt’s foreign-policy priorities. Even after it hands the baton to Abu Dhabi, which will host the COP28 this year, Egypt will remain influential in this domain, drawing on its cumulative expertise in addressing the most serious global threats.
Above all, it will follow up with the industrialised nations to ensure that they meet their pledges and commitments, and it will continue to actively oppose certain unfair policies advocated by the western nations at Sharm El-Sheikh, such as the imposition of a tax on hydrocarbon products and caps on the production and export of fossil fuels.
Critics could not help but observe that the very countries that are responsible for over 90 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions and that had industrialised and prospered by dint of their exploitation of the resources of their former colonies in the Global South are now bent on keeping the developing nations from benefiting from their own resources.
REGIONAL ENVIRONMENT: Alongside climate action, Egyptian diplomacy will also need to focus on calming and stabilising the regional environment in the year ahead, which will help the new Egyptian republic unleash its energies and fulfil its potential.
As we have experienced to our detriment, unrest in one country tends to quickly spill over into others in the region. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 sent tremors across the Arab region that can still be felt today. The collapse of the state and the subsequent foreign interventions in Libya fed the spread of terrorism, armed groups, and militias and illegal migration.
The Sahel region has been particularly hard hit by these blights. The restoration of security and stability to Libya and the Sahel will help to stabilise North Africa and central and southern Africa. Southern Europe, which lies on the north-south axis of multiple crises, will also benefit, as was underscored in the Mediterranean Dialogue (Rome Med 2022) in Rome that Egypt attended in December.
In the light of the foregoing and for other reasons, we can look forward to a more active and dynamic Egyptian-African foreign-policy orientation this year, following through on the path of African economic integration as epitomised by the African Free Trade Zone. Such projects will bring within reach the dream of a single Africa that was shared by the great national independence leaders and founding fathers of pan-Africanism, men like Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Ahmed Ben Bella, Kenneth Kaunda and Nelson Mandela.
One aim of our diplomacy in this direction should be to promote Egypt as an African hub for education, healthcare, training and the transfer of knowledge and expertise. A main avenue towards this end is Egypt’s African-wide Decent Life Initiative that was launched at the Africities Summit in Kisumu, Kenya, in May 2022 and was adopted by the African Union’s Ministers of Local Development, Planning, and Housing Committee in its meeting in Cairo on 29-31 August 2022.
Unveiled by the Egyptian minister of planning during the COP27, this initiative allows for a broader scope of cooperation among the countries of the continent. In tandem with its work in this framework, Egyptian diplomacy will continue to support African efforts on counterterrorism, curbing illegal migration, promoting peacemaking and reconstruction, combating Covid-19 and other infectious diseases, and, of course, climate mitigation and adaptation.
Certain issues remain chronic sources of regional instability, and the Palestinian question is foremost among them. Regardless of talk about the decline in regional and international attention to it, the Palestinian cause has remained and will continue to remain close to the heart of Egyptian diplomacy.
Egypt, in the coming period, must work more closely, in coordination with the Palestinians, with moderate political forces in Israel and influential Arab and international countries to advance the prospects for dialogue and negotiation based on the agreed-upon frame-of-reference, with the aim of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Egypt must make it clear to Israel and its supporters that the current standstill in the negotiating process, while the Israelis and their government move further than ever to the extreme right, will not spare their country or its regional environment from instability. Only when a political settlement is concluded and a Palestinian state is established side-by-side with Israel will peace prevail and Israel be integrated into the region and win international respect.
Security in the Gulf is a crucial pillar of economic and political stability in the region, and it is a natural focus of Egyptian diplomacy that aims to strengthen cooperation with the country’s Gulf partners and, by extension, its Iraqi and Jordanian partners.
The new year will see intensified drives to develop bilateral and multilateral projects in various fields in this regional framework. The same thing applies to the Maghreb region, where Egypt will continue to help strengthen the developing national institutions in Tunisia and build on the contributions that President Al-Sisi made at the Arab Summit in Algiers in 2022 in collaboration with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Owing to their combined weight, Egypt and Algeria can do much to promote stability in Libya and the rest of North Africa. Algiers and Cairo have many reasons to work more closely together towards this end, despite the designs of certain parties, most notably one regional power that has been actively meddling in Tripoli in recent years to drive a wedge between the two capitals.
One can also envision a significant role for Egyptian summit diplomacy in mending the fences between Algeria and Morocco.
MEDITERRANEAN AND RED SEA: Needless to say, Egyptian diplomacy keeps its eyes trained on the East Mediterranean, where the relative security and stability attained, in large measure thanks to Egyptian diplomatic efforts, has made it possible for eight countries to work together in the framework of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and benefit from the wealth of underwater natural resources in the area.
The EMGF partners have concluded a series of maritime border agreements to delineate their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), thereby pre-empting potential disputes between them. They are now trying to engage in dialogue with Turkey, and there have been some encouraging signs of a possible rapprochement that could herald a breakthrough with that regional power with which we share deep historical and cultural bonds.
Enhanced dialogue and cooperation with Turkey to resolve various sources of tension would go a long way to boosting regional stability. It could also lead to a more active Egyptian role in building trust between Ankara and Athens and Nicosia, smoothing tensions in the Aegean and generating a climate for a possible solution to the Cypriot question.
To the south, the Red Sea is crucial to Egypt’s national security, Gulf security, regional stability, and the safety of international maritime traffic. This area is, therefore, a major priority for Egyptian diplomacy and one in which it is well-equipped to act effectively in the light of its growing ability, in collaboration with others, to control and safeguard the strategic Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the southern gateway to the Red Sea and Suez Canal.
Egyptian national security is a major determinant of foreign-policy design and action. This naturally applies to peacemaking and the fight against terrorism and its state sponsors. But it also applies to crucial questions of food and water security.
With regard to the latter, Egypt has worked closely with Sudan to persuade Ethiopia to engage in serious negotiations towards reaching an equitable solution to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The hopes of Cairo and Khartoum are set on a binding agreement, in line with the rules and principles of international law, that will serve the interests of all three parties and enable Addis Ababa to fulfil its developmental aspirations through the water and hydroelectric power generated by the GERD while simultaneously securing Egypt’s and Sudan’s historic water rights and right to life.
Given the current international climate, the questions of food, water, and energy security will probably overshadow action in other areas of concern to Egyptian foreign policy in the coming period. However, Egyptian diplomacy will sustain its regional drives aimed at improving conditions for our national economy, and it will pursue all possible channels with regional and international partners and with international funding and aid organisations to advance its development goals.
In this process, Egyptian diplomacy will remain an emblem of Egyptian dedication, acumen, innovation, and initiative in its pursuit and advocacy of ideas and visions that both enhance Egyptian national security and serve the welfare of the African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean environments and the betterment of the planet as a whole.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly