It is no easy time for Egyptian diplomacy. The sources of concern are many, including the situation in Yemen, international unease over the 20-year jail sentence handed to ousted president Mohamed Morsi, the disturbing procrastination of Ethiopia over accommodating Egyptian concerns regarding its vast dam project on the Blue Nile, and continued apprehension over the situation in Libya.
“Things are happening so fast, and all at the same time. Sometimes we are hopeful, but then we are faced with very unpleasant complications,” said a senior Egyptian foreign ministry source.
Since the beginning of this month, unpleasant surprises have often led to significant disappointments. Saudi Arabia is unhappy with what officials in Riyadh qualify as an “ungrateful” Egyptian reply to its demand for “sufficient troops” to execute a ground operation in Yemen, which Riyadh hoped would cover the many shortcomings of Operation Decisive Storm in terms of changing the power balance on the ground.
Four weeks of heavy airstrikes have, according to well-informed regional sources, failed to expand the zone of influence of the pro-Saudi Yemeni camp, while simultaneously stirring anti-Saudi sentiment in many parts of the country, Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods alike.
Cairo had reluctantly joined the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm, but at no small political and economic cost. Both Russia and China, which had promised to reach out with economic — particularly energy — assistance to Egypt are holding back that support to express unease at Egyptian participation in a war in Yemen that both Moscow and Beijing oppose.
As a result, the Chinese president decided at very short notice to call off a scheduled visit to Cairo this week, “a huge embarrassment given that President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi himself had spoken publicly of the visit and its added value,” according to an Egyptian diplomat.
Shortly afterwards, Moscow called off a series of economic meetings that were planned for the last week of this month. Egypt was hoping that these meetings would lead to significant energy and agricultural assistance – sorely needed as the crises in both sectors are becoming critical.
To add to the losses, Saudi Arabia, not sufficiently satisfied with the level of Egyptian engagement in the Riyadh scheme for Yemen, decided to delay a generous cash transfer of foreign currency that, alongside similar pledges from close Gulf allies the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, it promised over a month ago.
“We have gone the extra mile by being the one and only country that actually deployed troops in Saudi Arabia in anticipation of developments in Yemen — something that was done despite opposition from within the state and from many parts of the political spectrum in Egypt. But still the Saudis were not satisfied,” said a government official.
He added that at the beginning of the second week of this month, a key aide to the president received a phone call from Riyadh indicating that the transfer of close to $6 billion would be made “within less than 24 hours.” This, he explained, was the basis for a public statement made by the governor of the Egyptian Central Bank regarding the transfer of the promised foreign currency deposit. The transfer was eventually sent two weeks late.
Cairo looked with anticipation at the change of Saudi tactics this week as Riyadh moved from Decisive Storm to “Operation Hope,” announcing a progressive decline in air-strikes against Houthi targets in favour of a ground-based presence mixed with financial resources that would be generously invested to reduce the influence of the Houthis.
On the one hand, it was annoying for Cairo to see Riyadh rebuff Egyptian advice against opening an airstrike campaign in Yemen and to pursue a political solution, only to be accommodating of the advice of Saudi regional and international friends to end the clearly futile air operation and pursue a political solution. On the other hand, Cairo can only be too happy to avert a mass deployment that could end up being effectively Egyptian ground troops only in Yemen.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met extensively this week with his Saudi counterpart Saoud Al-Faissal to discuss in detail the next phase of the Yemen operation. An informed source said that Al-Faissal was not very forthcoming in sharing what the Saudis had in mind and that Cairo was left feeling insufficiently informed, and still expected to keep a considerable stand-by military presence in Riyadh while a ceasefire is agreed.
According to foreign diplomats in Cairo, given the unmasked hegemony of the Egyptian executive over the other branches of government and especially in the continued absence of an elected parliament, it is hard for Egyptian diplomats to justify to the Saudis why Cairo was reluctant about sending troops to Yemen. The decision, after all, would have been taken by the executive and would have been independent from any judicial review.
It is equally difficult, they add, to acknowledge the argument of Egyptian diplomats over the independence of the judiciary, when courts have sentenced members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is clearly the toughest political adversary of the current authorities, to death.
This is precisely the case this week with the sentence issued by a court of law to jail Morsi for 20 years for “excessive show of power” in facing up to anti-Morsi demonstrations in the summer of 2013 by the presidential palace in Heliopolis.
While some countries openly publicised their apprehensions about the court ruling, others chose to share concerns behind closed doors with the Egyptian foreign service.
“We know that it is not the choice of the foreign ministry and we know that they are not pleasantly surprised at the foreign ministry to hear of such a verdict; they were not at all in agreement with the mutable death sentences that were being issued a few months ago against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but we still have to tell them that Cairo should not be expecting us to see such a court ruling as unpoliticised,” said a European ambassador.
The same ambassador added that it will be very hard for the foreign service to explain to the world – even though many countries have decided to work with the current authorities – the discrepancy between the convictions of Morsi and other Brotherhood figures, and the failure to convict Hosni Mubarak.
Almost all those figures associated with the Mubarak regime who were charged with offences related to their time in power have been found not guilty, while Brotherhood politicians, whose rule lasted but one year – “compared to 30 years in the case of Mubarak” – are being issued death sentences or given life behind bars.
Foreign, especially Western, diplomats in Cairo argue that the perception of the ruling regime in Egypt as “not just military-influenced but also very undemocratic” passes from politics to economy. The concern over the “volume of influence” and “level of intervention” of the army in the mega projects that the state is promoting is said by these diplomats to be, at the very least, a cause for concern.
Several openly say that their investors cannot be prompted to come and do business in Egypt under the “sway” of the army, “irrespective of the text of investment laws.”
The foreign service, according to foreign diplomats, had secured a major victory after the ouster of Morsi close to two years ago by getting the world to overcome its early negative perception of the military-supported ouster of an elected president.
It also managed to get the world to come to terms with accepting the current ruling regime in Egypt as an outcome of a democratic choice secured in free and fair elections.“But it is one thing for the world to accept that El-Sisi is the only address in town, as some of the Egyptian diplomats like to say, and quite another to argue that this is a democratic and truly civilian address,” said another European ambassador.
To be able to overcome this challenge, the ambassador argued, “Cairo would have to get over its obsessive rejection of political Islamic groups.”
In the analysis of several foreign diplomats in Egypt, it is one thing to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are acting against the will of the public and are involved in terror attacks – something that many of them take with a pinch of salt given the fact that they don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, for example, as one and the same thing.
But it is not at all the same thing, they add, for Egypt to try and tell the world that all the political Islam movements in the entire Arab world have to be exterminated. According to a visiting European official who had recently conferred with top state officials, “Egypt wants us to believe that they are all the Muslim Brotherhood - from Qaida to ISIS; and it wants us to agree that they should all be eliminated.”
According to this official, the sooner that the Egyptian authorities decide to accept the fact that there is no political settlement in Libya for example without the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that Islamist rule in Turkey cannot be forced by the intrigues of intelligence to tumble and fall “despite its many undemocratic choices,” the easier it will be for Egypt to argue its case for democracy and development away from the backing of the rich oil Gulf states who are very prudent now with this support be it political or financial.