Unfriendly regimes, but stable: Egypt's regional choice

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 30 Oct 2014

Egypt is banking on members of old regimes to help the transition process in Syria, Yemen and Libya, say diplomats and officials

Sameh Shoukry
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks during a news conference with his Italian counterpart Federica Mogherini at the Egyptian foreign ministry in Cairo, Friday, July 18, 2014 (Photo: AP)

This week President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry were clear about two key issues: Egypt is not going to turn its back to the havoc in the region, and it will try to help fix it in every possible way. Egypt's objective, according to a joint statement, is to promote stable and coherent statehood and to fight terrorism.

Libya, Syria and Yemen were mentioned in particular in the statement from the two top officials.

In the next few weeks, Cairo is hoping to launch a sustainable political process that could provide the base for the establishment of a new solid regime in Libya.

The Egyptian attempt is operated simultaneously on two parallel tracks: military and political.

On the military front – in close cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and in opposition to joint resistance from Qatar and Turkey – Egypt is providing training and support to factions that resemble the Libyan army under Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled for 40 years in essentially a semi-tribal fashion.

The fragmented groups have been reassembled by a former Libyan military figure, Khalifa Haftar. Despite his defeat by opposition forces, which sent him into temporary exile in Egypt, Haftar remains what informed Egyptian sources say is the only or most workable option for Libya now, or in the near future.

"We hoped to have a better alternative, someone with more influence on the ground, but for now Haftar is the only choice for our cooperation," said one Egyptian source. "We examined a few options, but they seem to be as weak or even weaker."

While trying to give Haftar military strength and expertise, Cairo is also – in the words of one western diplomat – "racing against time to formulate a political roadmap for Libya that could be subject to the consent of as many Libyan political groups as possible."

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is expected to try to assemble a working group to draft a Libyan road map this autumn, said one Egyptian diplomat.

Haftar is part of the political scheme as well, the same diplomat said.

But some of Egypt’s partners, especially in the west but also in North Africa, are rather uncertain about the Egyptian scheme.

In the words of one North African diplomat, Egypt "wants to exclude all Islamist, serious Islamist, forces and this is simply a non-starter, and we keep telling them this over and over again."

According to a western diplomat who met recently with his Egyptian counterparts over the matter, Cairo is focusing too much on the resourcefulness of Gaddafi's former network – like his former close aid and cousin, Ahmed Gadhaf Al-Dam, among others – who she says "will not deliver and will end up fighting each other."

Cairo officials argue that while the network of Haftar and Al-Dam might not be very reliable, it remains, at least for now, the only serious network that could be worked with to avoid two disturbing scenarios, at least from the Egyptian perspective: massive western military intervention in Libya, which Cairo believes could well turn the country into another Iraq, or an inevitable fragmentation of the direct neighbour that is already proving to be a source of considerable headache for Cairo.

The main problem with Libya, as with other Arab countries like Syria and Yemen that are qualified by Cairo to be on the verge of a serious collapse, is that the ruling regimes were removed or seriously challenged in the absence of a serious alternative.

"For now, and due to the absence of a serious political stratum in these countries, the alternatives have to come from within the remains of the regimes that ruled for so long," said the same Egyptian diplomat.

He said Cairo has been defending this argument with allies and partners in the Arab world as well as in the west.

"Our friends in the south Mediterranean were initially apprehensive, but I think we are making some progress," the diplomatic source said.

He added that there is sufficient agreement among all concerned parties that no direct, extensive military intervention should be started to eliminate Islamic militant groups – some of whom are in direct alliance with the Islamic State, he says – before there is a political set up that could take over the country and amass significant public support to move on.

The Egyptian argument is that this new base cannot be just extracted from the fringes of the old regime. This, Egyptian diplomats argue, has been the main flaw in Yemen's transition after the ouster of Ali Abdallah Saleh.

The new political set up that Egypt is hoping will materialise in Libya, and eventually both in Yemen and Syria, could have a base from the layers of the old ruling regimes – but should certainly include broader political participation.

This is not an easy task – especially in the case of Syria, where Egypt’s strongest Arab ally Saudi Arabia is not open to any scenarios that don't include a hurtful ouster of Bashar Al-Assad, who was never forgiven by the royal family in Riyadh for an illicit verbal attack he made in 2006 during the Israeli-Lebanese war.

The Saudis are also sensitive over the situation in Yemen, being that it's a border state. They're worried of opening a window for an expanded influence of Shia groups – not just over their influence on Saudi's own Shia minority, but also what some western diplomats qualify as a phobic fear of the association between these Shia groups and Riyadh's archenemies in Tehran.

"We cannot overlook the Saudi point of view, of course – not just because of the support that Riyadh has been giving Egypt, but also because Saudi Arabia is a key country in the region," the Egyptian diplomatic source said.

But he added: "The full elimination of Al-Assad’s regime could be a nightmare for Egypt, given the geographic proximity, if it's done in the absence of a ready-to-install replacement."

Meanwhile, leaving Yemen alone could lead to "some disturbing developments around the Red Sea", a zone of direct strategic interest for Egypt, he said.

"We are not interfering or trying to fix the ruling political regimes in these countries in line with our preference; we are just worried about a highly challenged regional stability".

It's this pursuit of stability, he argued, that is making Egypt supportive of the regime of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, "despite the endless differences" – hosting Muslim Brotherhood members, "illicit deals" with Iran and Qatar and cooperating with Ethiopia over its Grand Renaissance Dam.

"We just cannot allow Sudan to fall into chaos, especially with the overall explosive situation in South Sudan," he said.

"If we have to choose between instability and unfriendly regimes we would go for stability – this has long been the Egyptian choice".

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